Friday, March 14, 2014

Flags Over St. Francisville
By Anne Butler
Market Hall photo by Gail Chisum
Market Hall photo by Gail Chisum

The St. Francisville area is so incredibly scenic that since the days of Audubon it has inspired artists and writers, photographers and painters. It still does. Several local artists have galleries in the historic district downtown, and the West Feliciana Historical Society’s museum-headquarters on Ferdinand Street displays a nice selection of coffee table photography books with glorious images of the area’s landscapes and architecture.

Being released this month is yet another, Flags Along the Way: A Pictorial Journey Through the History of West Feliciana, which promises to supplement the current crop of picture books nicely. Just as every good painter has his own unique style, so every good photographer has his own eye. There can never be too many books preserving parish history in images and print, particularly since fragile old plantation homes are so vulnerable to fires and storms and other destructive elements. What’s here today may well be gone tomorrow.

Methodist Church by Gail Chisum
Methodist Church photo by Gail Chisum
Both text and photography in this new book are by Gail L. Chisum, who was born in Oklahoma, raised in Maryland, and attended Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas on a photo journalism scholarship. After serving in Viet Nam, he returned to the states, where he had a distinguished career in insurance and financial services with Farm Bureau all over the state of Louisiana.

Retirement brought a renewed passion for photography, especially with the advent of digital photography which found him, 40 years after doing college sports photography, now carrying a digital 35mm with 400mm lens at LSU football games. His dream in 2011 was to produce a book on LSU’s season all the way to a national championship, but in the title game Alabama put an abrupt halt to those plans.

By the 1990s Chisum and his family had settled in West Feliciana, where the sense of history is palpable and the numerous historic signs whet his appetite to learn more. After sharing with Farm Bureau colleagues his enthusiasm for combining his interest in parish history with his passion for photography, he found himself the recipient of a fine new Canon camera as a retirement gift. As he says, “I walked out the door of one career to begin another, as an author and photographer of history of the area where I lived.”

Afton Villa Gardens by Gail Chisum
Afton Villa Gardens - photo by Gail Chisum
A full year of painstaking research and reading, home visits and interviews with property owners followed. Museum director Helen Williams was a tremendous help, and eventually Chisum filled over 250 pages with fine photographs and in-depth histories. He very sensibly divided the book into chapters according to the many flags that have flown over the area---France, England, Spain, Republic of West Florida, Louisiana, Confederacy, United States.

Flags Along the Way will be available in downtown St. Francisville at the West Feliciana Historical Society museum and at Bohemianville Antiques, where the author will have a book signing on May 3. His next project is even more ambitious: photographing the 59 National Parks across the country, so be sure to catch him while he is still in town!

Beginning April 24, the twenty-first annual Cajun Jeep Jamboree brings off-road enthusiasts to the St. Francisville area for two days of guided trail rides through the challenging hilly terrain of West Feliciana. The event is open to all Jeep brand vehicles, and registration information is available at

Oakley House by Gail Chisum
Oakely House - photo by Gail Chisum
The Angola Prison Rodeo always draws big crowds of visitors to the St. Francisville area in April; this year’s spring edition is April 26 and 27. From the time the mounted black-clad Angola Rough Riders race at break-neck speed into the arena, flags streaming and hooves flying, visitors are on the edges of their seats through events pitting inmates against pro-stock Brahma bulls and wild-eyed bucking broncos. Ladies’ barrel racing is the only non-inmate event in what is called the longest running prison rodeo, begun in the 1960s and now celebrating half a century of thrills and spills.

Crowd favorites are the events unique to Angola, including the crowd-pleasing "Guts and Glory", an arena full of inmates on foot trying to remove a $100 chit tied between the horns of the meanest Brahma bull around. Rodeo events begin at 2 p.m., but the grounds open at 9 a.m. for a huge arts and crafts sale showcasing inmate talent in hobbycraft like jewelry, hand-tooled leather, paintings and woodwork both large and small, from children’s toys to garden furniture. Special activities for children include pony rides and an antique carousel, space walks and carnival games. Inmate bands perform throughout the day, and a large number of concession stands offer a variety of food and drink, with the stands providing shaded seating for more than 10,000 cheering spectators. Tickets ($20 premium, $15 regular seating) should be purchased in advance (online at or by telephone on weekdays 8:30-4 (225) 655-2030 or (225) 655-2607).

Visitors should allow time to tour the fascinating prison museum just outside the front entrance gates to learn more about the history of this enormous maximum-security penitentiary. It should be noted that there are specific regulations with which visitors must comply when entering prison grounds; no food, drink, cell phones or cameras are allowed through the rodeo entrance gate, and on prison property no weapons, ammunition, alcohol or drugs are permitted; purses and bags will be searched and all vehicles must be locked when unoccupied.

Historical Society Museum
Museum - photo by Gail Chisum
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 restored plantation homes are open for tours daily: Cottage Plantation, Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season, and spring is definitely the season for spectacular bloom. 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 some 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 recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty shops, many in restored historic structures, and restaurants 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 historic district; there are also motel accommodations for bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society’s museum and tourist information center at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224 or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit, or (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).