Friday, April 18, 2014

Tilling The Soil Through Time

St. Francisville, LA: Tilling The Soil Through Time
By Anne Butler

Turk's CapIn 1831 the Encyclopaedia Americana called the District of Nueva Feliciana the garden of Louisiana, its rich well-watered soils and happy climate perfect for the cultivation of gardens both pragmatic and merely pleasing to the senses.
The first cash crops, indigo and cotton, corn and sugarcane, were planted as soon as the fields were laboriously cleared. Each early dwelling had its kitchen garden and truck patch for growing foodstuffs for family and farm animals, plus herbs for cooking as well as medicinal purposes. And once those plantings had been established and the pioneering families prospered, attention turned to ornamental gardens, formal parterres and orderly bordered beds of flowering shrubs—azaleas, camellias, sweet olive and hip gardenia, climbing roses and other heritage plants. Some of these 19th-century gardens still exist, most notably Rosedown and Afton Villa, and these historic plantings have been joined by equally impressive contemporary landscaping like Imahara’s Botanical.
The weekly Farmers’ Market, open Thursday and Saturday mornings, allows present-day farmers the opportunity to share the fruits of their labors, but in May the St. Francisville area also hosts two special events celebrating several very different aspects of its long gardening tradition.
Afton Villa GardensOn Saturday, May 3, the Feliciana Horticulture Society, Master Gardeners of the LSU Ag Center, host their 10th annual St. Francisville Spring Garden Stroll, showcasing eight unique town and country plantings on morning and afternoon self-guided tours. The featured private gardens—two in St. Francisville’s downtown historic district, two in the country on LA 421, four in Plantation Oaks subdivision—incorporate a wide variety of landscapes and plant varieties sure to inspire gardening enthusiasts. Container gardening, vegetable and herb gardens, water features, an orchard, steep wooded ravines, meandering pathways, formal parterres and rustic fences, patios, courtyards, and thoughtful combinations of cultivated plantings seamlessly fused with wild plants, all are sure to give visiting gardeners new ideas to incorporate in their own landscapes.
As LSU AgCenter horticultural expert Dr. Dan Gill says, “A garden tour is not just an opportunity to learn; it can inspire you to change who you are as a gardener.” Proceeds benefit 4-H scholarships, school gardens and other community beautification projects. Tickets are $20 and may be purchased in advance or on the day of the Stroll at Jackson Hall of Grace Episcopal Church on Ferdinand St. in downtown St. Francisville, and information is available by telephone (225-635-3614) or online at or by email (
Farmers MarketIn stark contrast to the Garden Stroll is a Smithsonian Institution exhibit hosted by the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola Museum. “The Way We Worked,” a travelling exhibition exploring the professions and people that have traditionally sustained American society as part of our workforce, represents the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ participation in the Museum on Main Street project, a national/state/local partnership designed to bring cultural programs and exhibits to rural areas. Tracing the developments affecting the workforce over the past century and a half, “The Way We Worked” draws on the rich collections of the National Archives, including vintage images, film and audio accounts, all telling the compelling story of how work impacts the cultural fabric of our lives.
The exhibit at Angola’s museum from May 17 through June 29 is especially meaningful in this rural area where agriculture, most recently the cultivation and canning of sweet potato crops, has for centuries played such an important role. Called “Farming on the Farm, Agricultural Operations at Angola,” it focuses on the extensive agricultural operations on this sprawling 18,000-acre penitentiary comprised of several antebellum plantation properties. Scholarly presentations, films and oral histories will augment the exhibition, and visitors will have the opportunity to add their own work experiences to Smithsonian archival records. Work chants and music both old and new, plus tastings of agricultural produce prepared by inmate chefs in Angola’s culinary program, will heighten the experience.
Located just outside the entrance gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola on LA 66, the Tunica Trace, the Angola Museum is open Monday through Friday 9 to 4:30, Saturday 8 to 4, closed Sunday. For information on this free exhibit, telephone 225-655-2592 or visit online
FlowersLocated 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).