Friday, October 23, 2015

Thoughts of Thanksgiving in St. Francisville, LA

Thoughts of Thanksgiving in St. Francisville, LA
By Anne Butler

Miss EmilyThanksgiving turns our thoughts backward, back to the 1620s First Thanksgiving celebrated by Plymouth pilgrims with the Native Americans who taught them survival skills, back to our heritage and history, back to “Over the River and Through the Wood, To Grandmother’s House We Go.”

These days, Grandma might just as well be on a skiing trip to her condo in Colorado instead of laboring over a hot oven roasting turkey for the multitudes, and anyway, the original poem penned by Lydia Maria Child said we were going to Grandfather’s House. And while Ol’ Man River keeps on rolling, rolling, rolling in timeless fashion past St. Francisville, we’re missing two of the icons of a trip over the waters. The ferryboat we rode for a century or so has been replaced by a grand new bridge. And Miss Emily, ah, we miss Miss Emily.

For more than 30 years, the long wait at the landing for the ferry to cross the Mississippi River between St. Francisville and New Roads was brightened by the much anticipated sight of Miss Emily. Braving the freezing breezes or broiling sun, straw-hatted Miss Emily trundled along the landing road with a bright red Radio Flyer wagon loaded with her famous homemade pralines, teacakes, boiled or roasted peanuts. Generations of travelers from around the world grew to love Miss Emily, daughter of an old-time pastor/carpenter. Miss Emily worked for many years as nanny and housekeeper for the Wilcox family in St. Francisville, but she needed more income to support her seven children. When she came up with the idea of hawking snacks, she asked the Lord to give her a recipe, and after a few failures, she and the Lord perfected the ingredients and technique for what visitors and residents alike called the world’s best pecan pralines.

Miss Emily in FurWhen she died in September at the age of 84, longtime St. Francisville mayor William H. D’Aquilla, “by the authority vested in me by the State of Louisiana and the Town of St. Francisville,” officially proclaimed October 3 as Ms. Emily Smothers Williams Day in recognition of the great respect with which she was viewed in the community.

Today her grandson Antonio Williams, long her understudy, continues to make her popular pecan candy, selling it from her home across from the town post office as well as in the local historical museum and other shops in St. Francisville, carrying on the tradition in fine fashion.

This being November, the month of nostalgia, there’s another salute to tradition and heritage on Sunday, November 1, when the Hemingbough Blues Festival pays tribute to the roots music from which so many contemporary musical genres spring, everything from jazz and R&B to rock and roll or hip hop. From 12:30 to 6:30 p.m. (doors open at 11:30), the Baton Rouge Blues Society has assembled an incredible array of talent to give concert goers the opportunity to enjoy world-class blues played by some of the best musicians around.

Hosted by radio personality Rob Payer, the festival features blues and soul man Luther Kent, who was born in New Orleans and began singing professionally at age 14. One-time lead singer for “Blood, Sweat and Tears,” he has been inducted into the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame as well as the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. Another member of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame is Gregg Wright of the stellar guitar and soulful voice fame, called King of the Rockin’ Blues. Wright played 75 concerts as Michael Jackson’s guitarist on his legendary 1980’s Victory Tour. Worldwide audiences proclaim him one of the most innovative guitarists of our time, in the top echelons of the great blues guitarists.

Johnny They will be joined by Chris LeBlanc, for over 20 years a mainstay on the Louisiana music scene, whose performances resonate with the rich bluesy sound of the south; Betsy Braud with her upbeat gumbo bayou jazz with a hint of the swamp; talented LSU music school grad Kiki Lynell; and beloved local blues band the Delta Drifters. Also appearing are Oscar “Harp” Davis, one of the region’s best blues harmonica players and member of the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame; John Gray, educator and trumpet player noted for his wide range of musical genres from classical to jazz, funk and R&B; Chris Belleau, physiatrist by day and in Zydeco bands by night, whose album Knee Deep in the Blues featured him on vocals, harmonic and Cajun accordion.

Tickets for the Hemingbough Blues Festival are $20 in advance, $25 at the gate, and are available at Phil Brady’s Bar and the Elizabethan Gallery in Baton Rouge. No coolers are allowed; food and drink are available on-site for purchase.

So if you don’t have an accessible Grandma to go home to for Thanksgiving, come on over the river and through the wood to St. Francisville, eat some of Miss Emily’s legendary pralines and hear some soulful sounds of the southern blues for which this area is famous.
Gregg WrightLocated 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 splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: the Cottage Plantation, Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. 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 periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday).

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area 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-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society 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).