Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Farewell to St. Francisville’s True Democrat and Welcome to The Advocate

Farewell to St. Francisville’s True Democrat and Welcome to The Advocate

By Anne Butler

Building DemocratChange, of course, is inevitable, and the balance between progress and preservation is a delicate one. A few years back, St. Francisville residents said farewell to the ferry system that had transported generations across the Mississippi River, their reluctance assuaged in part by the beautiful new cable-stayed bridge that was certainly more reliable.

Now, the little town says good-bye to its local newspaper, The Democrat, which has preserved in print the comings and goings, the happenings and heartaches of this little town in an up-close and personal way that may be difficult to match by the big newspaper conglomerate that has absorbed a number of small regional publications. Certainly new resources will provide opportunities unheard of in the tiny two-man office of The Democrat, but lost may be an intimacy of connection that will be hard to replace.

And the history! When The True Democrat first “unfurled its flag to the journalistic breeze” on February 3, 1892, in St. Francisville, it proclaimed purity as its emblem and truth and honesty as its lofty motto. It promised to labor for the advancement of the people, politically, socially and financially, to promote agricultural diversity, to encourage manufacturing and to liberally support education. But really, this early newspaper was begun to “make war on a great gambling monopoly,” the controversial Louisiana Lottery.

True Democrat
The True Democrat was not the little river town’s first paper. As early as 1811 James Bradford, son of a pioneer Kentucky printer and first official territorial printer in New Orleans, had established the Time Piece in St. Francisville, the first newspaper in the Florida Parishes which had only recently joined the territory of Orleans. This was less than two decades after the first newspaper in Louisiana was begun in New Orleans, prior to which news and official proclamations were spread only by the town crier and the posting of handwritten broadsides.

The True Democrat outlasted the lottery problem. When it published an ambitious 30-page Silver Anniversary Edition upon the occasion of completing its first 25 years in print, a hefty publication that it advised readers would require a whole two cents of postage to mail, the editor couldn’t help bragging that from the first 1892 issue “despite death, quarantine, fire and flood,” The True Democrat never missed an issue.
Its first edition, like all newspapers of the time, was a four-page six-column sheet covered in just three sizes of type, with advertisements limited to a single column and just a few lines; before the mid-1800s, advertising was by broadsides, handbills and posters for the most part. Three lawyers, three doctors and two dentists “had their cards” in that first issue as advertisement, some of whom were still engaged in practice at the time of the Silver Edition, and the “Personal But Polite” column shared juicy tidbits of local gossip.

Interspersed throughout the anniversary edition’s articles were enthusiastic exhortations and encouragements: “Quit existing elsewhere; come to West Feliciana and live!” and “The spirit of progress is abroad in West Feliciana.” There was even a little piece entitled “A Second Heaven,” in which Saint Peter is showing a newcomer around heaven, with streets of gold, singing birds and beautiful flowers; asked about the disconsolate group of men over in a corner tied together, St. Peter explains that those were West Felicianians, who had to be kept tied up or otherwise they’d go right back home.

The editor of the True Democrat, in her 25th-anniversary look backward, proclaimed that it must have been “the rashness of extreme ignorance concerning the cost, risks and demands of publishing a newspaper” that led her to begin publication with her first husband, W.W. Leake, Jr., using “a three-fourths worn-out Washington hand-press and meagerly equipped print shop” and campaigning against the lottery at a time when most other publications in the state supported it. With little start-up capital, the True Democrat was begun with subscriptions ranging from five to ten dollars, “and a few of those, be it whispered, were never paid.” The editor’s husband supported the paper with proceeds from his insurance business; the first year, there was no net profit at all.

Old Printing PressWhen the Louisiana Lottery was defeated, primarily due to a US Supreme Court decision denying it use of the mails, the True Democrat vowed it would “never be at a loss for good causes to foster, new ideals to implant, fresh enterprises to support for the good of the people among whom we live.” And when Mr. Leake died in 1901, his widow struggled to continue alone as a hardworking country editor, often in ill health and “with one baby at the breast, another’s tiny hands on my skirts, a son too young to be of material assistance, and the accumulation of debts incurred in extensive farming operations untimely cut off before possibility of reaching results.” The community reached out to support her, paying bills, renewing subscriptions, paying in advance, providing printing work. And when in 1908 a fire wiped out the little print shop, a new beginning was made yet again.

As the widowed Mrs. Leake began to rebuild her business, a new printer was called for. One she hired turned out to be a disreputable drunk, another so nervous he could not touch the standing type without knocking it over. But in 1906 she made the fortunate acquaintance of one Elrie Robinson, Texan who knew the printing business inside and out. The outcome was happy, not only for the True Democrat but for the widow Leake, soon to become Mrs. Elrie Robinson. The paper flourished and in 1917 referred to West Feliciana, its 246,400 acres containing lands along the river “richer than the Valley of the Nile,” as “the portion of the State of Louisiana which burst upon the delighted vision of the sick and travel-worn Spaniards after their wanderings through the swamps and wilds of the Mississippi and Red Rivers, which in their joy they called ‘Feliciana.’”

The 1917 Silver Anniversary Edition of the True Democrat burst with pride at the accomplishments of the area, with histories of the West Florida Rebellion, Bayou Sara and St. Francisville, the West Feliciana Railroad, the Bank of Commerce and the Meyer Hotel (clean accommodations described as “homey without being unduly familiar”), the Odd Fellows Lodge and other club groups, the historic churches (some like Grace Episcopal already nearly a century old) , agricultural and educational advancements, prize flower gardens, notable plantations, and Audubon’s associations with the parish. There were tributes to leading citizens, many of whose names continue in the parish to this day.

While the bulk of early parish residents claimed Anglo antecedents, of the 1917 population of 13,449 there were interesting injections of other influences, like Peter Trocchiano with his swirling Salvador Dali-esque mustache, described as a live-wire Sicilian married to convent-educated Miss Salvatora Vinci; he began as a fruit peddler before branching out to establish a fine shoe store and manage the movie theater “where some of the most celebrated reels are seen.”

Newspaper True Democrat
The Jewish community was not neglected, with articles describing the contributions of citizens like Daniel Mann, Max Dampf, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Stern, and Julius Freyhan who funded the fine brick school bearing his name. The Temple Sinai was called one of St. Francisville’s “most attractive places of worship,” completed in 1903 to house a congregation described as “charitable to the needy and kindly towards all without regard to creed.” Nearly a full page was devoted to M&E Wolf, as 1917 marked the golden anniversary of what the paper called “West Feliciana’s greatest enterprise,” beginning as a little country store opened in 1867 by Julius Freyhan in the “dark days of reconstruction,” and growing to become principal source of supply for a dozen Louisiana parishes and Mississippi counties, selling up to a million dollars’ worth of goods and handling up to 14,000 bales of cotton in a year.

The 1917 edition’s advertisements shed as much light upon the life of the times as do the articles; Chas. Weydert offering a line of hardware and machinery at “live and let-live prices,” Max Dampf General Merchandise with “dry goods, staple and fancy groceries,” J.R. Matthews Real Estate Agency offering good farms and plantations while boasting that “this far south is the only section of the US today where good land can be bought cheap,” Parker Stock Farm described as an old-time cotton plantation now devoted to the livestock industry as breeders of Hereford cattle and Duroc Jersey hogs, the Bank of Commerce which had opened with just 30 depositors and $5,185.06, W.R. Daniel purchaser of sweet and Irish potatoes and all kinds of produce, L&S Stern’s “dry goods, notions and gents’ furnishings,” F.S. Percy of Plettenberg buyers of hogs or sheep or cattle in any quantity, Max Mann advertising wines, liquors and cigars, Abe Stern’s livery with “horses and mules always on hand,” and George Rettig’s “Best Eats.”

Mrs. Mae Leake Robinson’s son James M. would succeed his mother as editor of the newspaper until his death, and as he was also the fire chief, the pages of the paper during his tenure were often filled with hair-raising details of local conflagrations. For more than a century after its humble origins, the St. Francisville Democrat remained in publication, extolling the virtues of the parish and its residents, written in the same little structure built right smack in the middle of Johnson Street around 1908 as the first building constructed of brick made by the Bayou Sara Brick Company.

Hopefully the new limited version of news coverage in St. Francisville will include detailed notices of the beloved special events that draw visitors to the town, like the Hemingbough Blues Festival 12:30 to 6:30 on Sunday, November 2, bringing world-class blues artists like Luther Kent, Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone, Gregg Wright, Christ LeBlanc, Eden Brent and the Delta Drifters (for information, find Facebook page for Baton Rouge Blues Society).
Another exciting music festival follows on November 15th, the Louisiana Vets Fest in the West Feliciana Parish Sports Park from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (http://lavetsfest.org). This is an outdoor festival that supports and celebrates veterans of all wars with fun children’s activities, medical screenings, military displays, and hotly contested cook-off contests providing plenty of good food like barbecue chicken, jambalaya and gumbo.

This year’s LA Vets-Fest has a really exciting line-up of musical entertainment, including the Angola inmate band and that little bitty local dynamo named Julie DeJean. Headlining the program are the Marcia Ball Band from 2:15 to 3:30 p.m. and Jimmie Vaughan and the Tilt-a-Whirl Band featuring Lou Ann Barton from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Iconic blues singer-pianist Marcia Ball for three decades has repeatedly won various music awards and been nominated for Grammys five times, has been inducted into the Louisiana and Gulf Coast Music Halls of Fame, and has performed in films and on radio and television. USA Today’s music critic calls her a sensational saucy singer and superb pianist. With a huge following of fans around the world, this enormously popular musician and songwriter is said to know how to “raise roofs and tear down walls with her infectious, intelligent and deeply emotional brand of southern boogie, rollicking roadhouse blues, and heartfelt ballads. Her exquisite piano playing and passionate, playful vocals fuse New Orleans and Gulf Coast R&B with Austin’s deep songwriting tradition into a sound described as a little rock, a lot of roll, a pinch of rhythm and a handful of blues.”

Presses at the True DemocratFollowing Ball’s set, living legend Jimmie Vaughan, one of the popular music world’s greatest guitarists, takes the stage with the Tilt-A-Whirl Band featuring Lou Ann Barton of Austin, Texas, who is called one of the finest purveyors of raw, unadulterated roadhouse blues you’ll ever hear. Vaughan, older brother of blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan who was killed in a helicopter crash in 1990, formed The Fabulous Thunderbirds and performed with the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. Known for his retro cool, slicked-back hair, sharp vintage threads and classic car collection, Vaughan is credited with sparking the modern blues revival with his clean and uncluttered guitar style, utilizing raw emotion to convey the message within what is called modern roots music, linking contemporary music with its proud heritage.

December in St. Francisville brings the well-established and well-loved small-town holiday celebration called Christmas in the Country, with shop open houses, strolling musicians, lively parade (this year on Sunday rather than the customary Saturday afternoon due to election run-offs requiring that polling places not be blocked), and an 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 (Chinese, Mexican, most recently Lebanese) 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 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 Market on Thursday mornings).