“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday,” said Nobel Prize-winning novelist Pearl Buck. West Feliciana Historic Society museum director Helen Williams has had to keep reminding herself of that every time another patron has arrived loaded down with dusty boxes full of fragments of local history---vintage sepia-toned photographs, dog-eared journals, ledgers, diaries, yellowed clippings from ancient newspapers, maps, and assorted other family treasures. A frustrated groan must surely have escaped from Williams at the prospect of preserving all these valued donations in the face of limited space, limited staff, limited funding. And yet she recognized the vital contribution of even the smallest shred of evidence of our yesterdays to our understanding of today.
But there was just so much stuff! Every old house had its trove of treasures, every family its fading ancestral photos. Mississippi’s beloved author Eudora Welty, herself an avid photographer, wrote movingly about the importance of images: “Among all living creatures, only human beings seem to have the knowledge that the moment is passing, and the acute wish to hold that moment.”
While past generations took pride in stern portraits glowering from the walls, each with its lesson to teach (“You don’t change the course of history by turning the faces of portraits to the wall,” as Nehru understood), contemporary generations often shift their focus to the future with a desire to “clear out the clutter.” Consequently, a safe repository for all of these precious recorded moments of history is often required beyond the private home.
That local repository has been the West Feliciana Historical Society museum, and within its exhibit spaces, its attic and barn, its warren of storerooms, there have been boxes piled upon boxes, papers and photos overflowing from file cabinets, and prized possessions stuffed into every nook and cranny. Williams and the historical society were not about to turn down any donations in this area that is so rich in history and with such a remarkable sense of place, but researchers were only able to access the collections in person, and in many cases there was no record at all to accurately identify exactly who was who and what was what.
That’s all about to change, and just in the nick of time. The West Feliciana Historical Society board of directors has approved a proposal (“Copy Cats”) by Norman C. Ferachi and Anne Butler to create a permanent photographic history of West Feliciana’s past and present by collecting, cataloging, organizing and preserving old photographs, and, once that is accomplished, expanding the scope of the project to permit archiving more contemporary images as well. Beginning with the Historical Society’s valuable vintage images and then branching out to include private collections, the photographs will be duplicated and entered into a searchable electronic database, indexed by subject matter. Potential categories include religion, culture, commerce, communities, festivals and fairs, architecture and landscaping, labor and leisure time, people and organizations, schools and sports, transportation and waterways. Funding for equipment was provided by the society board and a suitable scanner has been obtained for the project’s museum office.
The project will serve several purposes. Fragile and fading images will be permanently preserved, and it will be possible to view them online without further damaging the originals. It will also be possible for researchers and writers to access the digitally archived collections from a distance, encouraging the use of these historic images in various projects and publications. Every effort will be made to ensure proper identification of places, people and dates, for which the memories of elderly community members will be invaluable resources.
An enthusiastic committee of volunteers will spearhead the project, each bringing specialized talents. Norman Ferachi has semi-retired from a publications career that included publishing Baton Rouge Magazine as well as a number of books of vintage Louisiana images. As the author of 20 books and hundreds of articles on Louisiana culture and landscapes, Anne Butler has had a great deal of experience in accessing historic images from archives around the state. Dr. Olivia Pass, retired university English professor, has edited scholarly journals and continues to teach under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Humanities and LSU continuing education programs (OLLI). Helen Williams, as director of the West Feliciana Historical Society museum, deals daily with its growing collections of historical artifacts, and two other volunteers, Arlene Folmar and photographer Kathleen Harris, bring to the project the discipline and detail orientation gained from demanding careers in nursing administration.
The historic images in the museum collection span the mid- to late-19th century and most of the 20th. Photographs record in vivid detail Mississippi River floodwaters inundating low-lying Bayou Sara just below the St. Francisville bluffs, and there are other images of residents in quaint period dress, vintage steamboats, historic plantation homes (some long gone, burned to the ground or washed away in floods)---all lessons in history. Once the museum photographs have been preserved, the public will be encouraged to share private collections of old images as well as contemporary ones, which will be scanned into the database so that the owners can retain possession of the originals.
This is a vast but important undertaking, and it will not be accomplished overnight. In the meantime, visitors to St. Francisville can view many of the original historic images on display in the West Feliciana Historical Society’s museum/tourist information center on Ferdinand St.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours daily: the Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, the Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations most weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the Farmers Markets on Thursday mornings).
Docking at Bayou Sara and Miss. River
Burton Hotel - Bayou Sara
Greenwood Plantation - Pilgrimage
Vinci's Store on Commerce St.
3V Cafe on Commerce St.
Stores on Commerce St.
Left to right: “Copy Cats” digital archiving committee members Kathleen Harris, Arlene Folmar, Olivia Pass, Norman Ferachi, Anne Butler, Helen Williams.
1940 Students of Julius Freyhan School
Car Ferry near St. Francisville, La.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Saving St. Francisville History, One Frame At A Time
By Anne Butler