Tuesday, September 23, 2014

October in St. Francisville Brings Out Colorful Leaves…and Colorful Characters

October in St. Francisville Brings Out Colorful Leaves…and Colorful Characters
By Anne Butler
Dancing ManHollywood veteran and ageless beauty Andie MacDowell was recently quoted as saying Southern people are crazy and she’s thankful for having grown up as part of that, recognizing the richness a little local color and a lot of local characters can add to life. If ever there were a living breathing example of that, it’s little St. Francisville, Louisiana, where eccentricity is not just tolerated but enthusiastically embraced.

From the late lamented town jailer who covered his bald pate with everything from Elvis pompadours to orange poodle-curl wigs, to the overgrown child who saddled up his three-wheel bicycle and patrolled the streets handing out speeding tickets to unsuspecting tourists, from the hard-drinking pistol-packing mama who wore a pirate’s eyepatch and drove a herd of her own cattle to LSU during the Depression to pay her tuition, to the savant who picks up trash along the roadways while reading Charles Dickens, and the mysterious Orthodox priest stalking the streets in long flowing black robes, St. Francisville has certainly harbored its share of colorful and well-loved characters.

So it’s appropriate that the town’s celebrations of life, its festivals, are just as colorful. And in October, they run the gamut from ghosts to garden-club ladies sipping tea, from fearless inmate roughriders to artists and crafters under the ancient live oaks of the town park. And every one of these diverse celebrations adds to the richness of life in this southern small town. Says Andie McDowell, “People say reading Faulkner is hard because he’s all over the place, but for me it’s easy—I’m right there with him.” And you can be, too.
Angola Rodeo
October is crowded with events allowing visitors to sample first-hand St. Francisville’s beloved quirkiness.  This being the season of witches and goblins, 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 (for tickets, telephone 800-809-0565). Indeed, when the attached gift shop caught fire not long ago, the ghosts were said to have saved the 1790s main house (the local firefighters just might’ve helped, too).

For a taste of authentic historic funeral customs, nearby Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site is dressed in mourning garb October 27 through November 3. On October 31 at 4 p.m. the costumed staff of this National Historic Landmark relates Soul Stories of Rosedown family members’ lives and deaths.

The BandEvery Sunday in October, the Angola Prison Rodeo draws more than 10,000 eager spectators to witness death-defying bravado in events like bareback bronc or bull riding, wild cow milking, wild horse race, buddy pick-up, bulldogging, inmate poker (last one seated wins, the other players having been hooked sky-high by charging brahma bulls), Bust Out (six bulls released at once) and the crowd-pleasing Guts and Glory when inmates on foot try to snatch a $100 chit from a bull’s horns. “The Wildest Show in the South, ” which keeps the audience on the edge of their seats from the moment the black-clad Angola Rough Riders charge into the arena at break-neck speed, also features prisoner hobbycraft sales, tons of food, and inmate bands. Other than the ladies’ barrel racing, all rodeo participants are inmates in this enormous maximum-security prison. Grounds open at 9 for the arts and crafts, and the fascinating state museum at the entrance gate will also be open. The rodeo starts at 2, and advance tickets are a must (www.angolarodeo.com provides information and spells out regulations which must be observed on prison property).
Vets FestSomewhat more sedate activities are offered October 10 and 11th at 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. Workshop topics this year include floral design, container gardening, edible garnishes, plant structures, gardening for birds and bees, heirloom bulbs and period architecture, and landscape design over the years (www.southerngardensymposium.org).

The last weekend of October, the 25th and 26th, the Yellow Leaf Arts Festival is a gathering of dozens of artists and crafters demonstrating and selling their wares in downtown oak-shaded Parker Park. This 12th annual event sponsored by the umbrella arts organization called Arts For All to celebrate all arts for all persons, Yellow Leaf 2014 brings together more than 55 artists, plus live music, fun children’s activities, and food including locally grown sweet potatoes. New this year is a Native Bird Photography Contest, and just down Burnett Road from Yellow Leaf on Saturday, the Friends of the Library hold a book sale at the wonderful new parish library.

FestivalsArts For All calls the Yellow Leaf Festival a celebration of the “friendly, relaxed, authentic, small-town quaintness that is St. Francisville” (for information, www.artsforall.felicianalocal.com).

For this and every other October event, the town welcomes visitors to revel in its pervasive local color and meet its local characters to understand just what actress Andie McDowell was talking about, that wonderful richness of life in a small southern town.

And the events just keep rolling along through fall into winter. 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 (http://lavetsfest.org). 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 (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.

TentLocated 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).