Saturday, July 26, 2014

BY Anne Butler

Young Russell Daniel
Russell Daniel and his father in spiffy hats and suits in downtown Baton Rouge.
He’s in his 80s now, but it’s an absolute miracle Mr. Russell Daniel survived his childhood. Born in 1928, he was a tiny tot when he ran into the arc of a blade wielded by his grandfather, Robert Clifford Brasseaux, who was chopping on a tree with a double-bitted axe. The gash on the left side of young Russell’s face required a number of stitches to close. And then, still a child, he fell out of a tree and nearly killed himself.

Today this white-haired, soft-spoken man, called by his sister-in-law “a real old-time southern gentleman,” is semi-retired from the family gas distributorship, which was recently officially recognized for a full century of service to the community, its provision of services exemplary and its devotion to its customers noteworthy. “Semi-retired,” of course, means that he only goes into the office in the mornings, after breakfasting with buddies at a local cafĂ©, and then again in the afternoons, just to help his son, you know.

He’s one of the multitude of distinguished descendants of family patriarch Robert Daniel, Junior, born in 1824 and father of some 15 children, many of them sons who, along with their own remarkable progeny, have left their mark on West Feliciana agriculture and business. Russell Daniel’s grandfather John Robert (known as J. Bob) worked with Governor Parker to establish a notable stock farm in the parish; Russell’s own father died in his thirties, which left young Russell and his mother Myrtle to live with her parents in St. Francisville on Royal Street.

Russell and Betty
 Russell and Betty Sue Kendrick Daniel cut the cake at their wedding.
Myrtle’s father Robert Clifford Brasseaux brought the first gasoline distributorship to the area in 1910 and sold kerosene to the little isolated country stores that kept hand-cranked drums of it on their porches for customers in the days before electricity. The kerosene was sent up from the Esso refinery in Baton Rouge by way of the LR&N railway, and Brasseaux unloaded the tank cars into barrels hauled by a mule-drawn wagon.

Upon the advent of automobile traffic, the enterprising Mr. Brasseaux also opened the first service station in St. Francisville. It was located at the upper corner of Royal and Ferdinand Streets in the store/residence of his father-in-law Henry Temple, who had come over from Germany in the mid-19th century. After Russell served in the armed forces and married vivacious Betty Sue Kendrick upon her college graduation in 1951, he assumed management of the business his grandfather had begun, now known as Russell Daniel Oil Company, providing accommodating service to the farmers and other residents of West Feliciana Parish for more than a century.

The oil company and service station across US Highway 61 from it have a long list of loyal customers, as do other long-established businesses located in historic downtown St. Francisville, listed as an extensive Historic District on the National Register. These join more recently established businesses in sponsoring an event called Polos and Pearls, highlight of August in St. Francisville, designed to add some sizzle to summer shopping and entice customers downtown the evening of August 23, beginning at 5 p.m. All the interesting little shops and galleries offer lots of extras---refreshments, music or other entertainment, and plenty of bargains, making shopping after dark just plain fun.

Russell and Betty
 Betty Sue Kendrick Daniel clowns around with a friend.
As the advent of autumn brings cooler temperatures, St. Francisville offers plenty of special events. The Hummingbird Festival on September 13 provides the opportunity to observe these amazing little birds up close as professional wildlife biologists band and weigh them before releasing them to continue their fall migration patterns.

October is crowded with events every weekend. The Angola Prison Rodeo draws some 10,000 eager spectators every Sunday in October, and the Myrtles Halloween Experience scares the pants off visitors every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and October 31 from 6 to 9 in a historic plantation house calling itself the most haunted in America. October 10 and 11 marks the 26th annual Southern Garden Symposium, a series of entertainments, workshops, tours, demonstrations and lectures by prestigious speakers in this the land of glorious antebellum gardens. The last weekend of October, the Yellow Leaf Arts Festival is a gathering of dozens of artists and crafts persons demonstrating and selling their wares in downtown Parker Park.

November 15 the Louisiana Vets Fest in the West Feliciana Parish Sports Park supports and celebrates veterans of all wars with children’s activities, military displays, hotly contested cook-off contests providing plenty of good food, and exciting live music including Marcia Ball and Jimmie Vaughn. And December brings the well-established and well-loved small-town holiday celebration called Christmas in the Country, with shop open houses, strolling musicians, lively parade, and a Sunday afternoon house tour benefitting the new parish library.

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. 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).