By Anne Butler
Tourism in Louisiana is big business, generating some $10.7 billion in annual spending by more than 26 million visitors. Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne, head of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, is introducing a new marketing campaign for 2014 with emphasis on Louisiana’s cultural diversity. Its tagline is “Only in Louisiana,” a slogan promoting the state as a unique cultural destination, and St. Francisville fits right into that marketing campaign with a number of site-specific local offerings ranging from the country’s largest bald cypress tree to a museum full of compelling exhibits on the hair-raising history of the country’s largest and most infamous maximum-security prison.
This little 19th-century rivertown has always had an abiding sense of place and respect for its history as English Louisiana’s plantation country, which for more than four decades has been shared with visitors at the annual spring Audubon Pilgrimage, one of the state’s longest running and most professionally presented historic home tours. Most recently attention has turned to enhancing awareness of the area’s early Jewish immigrants; the turn-of-the-century temple has been beautifully restored and the parish’s first public school, built primarily with contributions from German Jewish immigrant Julius Freyhan, is being resurrected as a community cultural center and the state’s first museum highlighting the significant contributions of the early Jewish immigrants whose business and financial acumen proved so vital to the post-bellum economic recovery of the South.
St. Francisville’s early settlers, those who carved the indigo and cotton plantations from the wilderness, certainly chose a propitious location for the little settlement right along the Mississippi River, so important as a means of transportation. Springtime overflow of its waters enriched the surrounding bottomlands and also provided, along this the only unleveed stretch of the lower Mississippi, the cyclical flooding that created the unique environment now preserved as Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge, home of the country’s largest bald cypress and other old-growth trees as well as habitat for an abundance of both migratory and resident birds and waterfowl.
|Cat Island NWR|
From St. Francisville northward, the rugged Tunica Hills area is an unspoiled wilderness that continues to support the same rich birdlife that so enthralled artist-naturalist John James Audubon in the 1820s that he painted dozens of his famous bird studies right in West Feliciana Parish. The steep wooded hillsides and deep cool hollows shelter rare plants and animals such as chipmunks found nowhere else in the state, and St. Francisville’s proximity to Clark Creek Natural Area make it an ideal jumping-off spot for hiking to a popular series of waterfalls.
If the early settlers chose St. Francisville’s location for its prime planting prospects, correctional officials chose the area just as carefully for its rugged terrain making escapes difficult from the maximum-security penitentiary called Angola, once the bloodiest prison in the country. Now its days of infamy are preserved in compelling exhibits in a museum which, along with the prison rodeo called the Wildest Show in the South, has helped make the 18,000-acre correctional facility the unlikeliest of tourist attractions.
Another special event unique to St. Francisville is the summertime Civil War re-enactment called The Day The War Stopped. Instead of the usual guns-blaring battle scene, this is actually a celebration of a rare moment of civility in the midst of a bloody war, when Masons from both Confederate and Union forces joined together in brotherhood to bury under flag of truce a Union naval officer in the oak-shaded cemetery of historic Grace Episcopal Church.
Louisiana is indeed a unique cultural destination where visitors have experiences available nowhere else. As Lt. Gov. Dardenne says, “When they come to Louisiana, they are going to leave with an experience unlike anything else. When you leave Louisiana, stories will be your best souvenir.” St. Francisville certainly has its share of special experiences and goodness knows there are plenty of stories. As the little town becomes a creative haven for writers, artists, musicians and others seeking quiet inspiration, other local events have been especially planned to enhance that experience and share it with visitors.
On Saturday, February 22, A Gathering of Writers and Readers, a symposium sponsored by Arts For All of author presentations, panel discussions and book signings, takes place at Hemingbough in St. Francisville. Moderated by SLU professor and writer Charles Elliott, the event features National Medal of Arts recipient Ernest Gaines as well as four professional authors chosen to give the audience a well-balanced appreciation for the art of literature—poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, nonfiction.
|Day the War Stopped|
For online information visit artsforall.felicianalocal.com; to purchase tickets, brownpapertickets.com/event/491750.This program is supported in part by a grant from the Louisiana Division of the Arts, Office of Cultural Development, Department of CRT, in cooperation with the Louisiana State Arts Council, the Greater Baton Rouge Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Another literary event, planned for later in the year, will focus on the writings of the late Louisiana author Walker Percy and his cultural and family ties to the St. Francisville area.
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, the Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season. 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 living-history demonstrations most weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Sunday and Monday).
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).