By Anne Butler
A mecca for creative souls ever since John James Audubon painted dozens of his Birds of America studies in the St. Francisville area in 1821, this little rivertown now harbors artists, musicians, designers, authors, and even talented rock painters who relish its peaceful atmosphere and stimulating environs. And for the past ten years the slow cold month of February has been enlivened by the Writers & Readers Symposium, now sponsored by A Celebration of Literature and Art, that draws interested readers and writers from a wide area to hear published authors of all genres speak about their creative processes and mingle with enthusiastic fans. This year’s symposium is slated for February 18 from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at beautiful Hemingbough Conference Center just south of St. Francisville, LA. Sure to be a popular addition is a separate but related Writers Retreat.
Featured professionals presenting at this year’s Symposium of Writers and Readers are Louisiana’s current Poet Laureate Peter Cooley; award-winning memoirist Melissa Delbridge; novelist Deborah Johnson ; and Rheta Grimsley Johnson, who will also lead the Writers Retreat.
Johnson also writes books. In 1989 she published Good Grief, The Story of Charles M. Schulz, the authorized biography of the creator of “Peanuts.” Other published books, moving memoirs of life with husbands, dogs, and assorted other characters, include Poor Man’s Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana; Dogs Buried Over the Bridge; Hank Hung The Moon and Warmed our Cold, Cold Hearts; and Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming. The titles alone promise warm and witty and sometimes heartbreaking recollections of experiences that resonate with readers who grew up in the South. We know those people. We ARE those people! And Johnson vividly captures a time and place to which we can all relate, for she sees beyond the surface to the very soul, with love and laughter and, yes, more than a few tears. On those rare occasions when she turns her searing glance to contentious contemporary issues, her columns are cut-to-the-bone honest, like it or not. Johnson and her handsome husband Hines Hall, retired Auburn history professor, divide their time between Fishtrap Hollow and The Pass in Mississippi these days.
After individual author presentations, Writers and Readers Symposium participants are treated to lunch and homemade desserts, followed by a panel discussion led by lively local writer/artist Carolyn Thornton. Tickets for the symposium, $55 in advance or $65 at the door, are available online at www.brownpapertickets.com or through OLLI at LSU. For additional information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Those participating in the Writers Retreat (preregistration required; separate fee) led by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, a workshop welcoming both fiction and nonfiction authors including beginners, will get together for a wine and cheese reception at Hemingbough on February 18 from 5 to 7 p.m., then enjoy both breakfast and lunch during the actual workshop February 19 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
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 splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), 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). In January Oakley features programs called “12th Night Tea” for mothers and daughters on January 7th (preregister by calling 225-635-3739), and “Breaking the Chains” on January 14th, an examination of the 1811 Louisiana slave rebellion plus a look at slavery on this particular plantation. Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site from January 9 through January 22 presents a special well-researched slant to its house tours debunking the inaccurate myths repeated all too often on historic home tours.
The St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. 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 www.westfeliciana.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).