Tuesday, February 20, 2018

St. Francisville, LA Celebrates Audubon & His Birds March 16-18

St. Francisville, LA Celebrates Audubon & His Birds March 16-18
By Anne Butler

WoodlawnThe forty-seventh annual Audubon Pilgrimage March 16, 17 and 18, 2018, celebrates a southern spring in St. Francisville, the glorious garden spot of Louisiana’s English Plantation Country. For nearly half a century the sponsoring West Feliciana Historical Society has thrown open the doors of significant historic structures to commemorate artist-naturalist John James Audubon’s stay as he painted a number of his famous bird studies and tutored the daughter of Oakley Plantation’s Pirrie family, beautiful young Eliza. A year’s worth of planning and preparation precedes each pilgrimage, and with 47 years of experience under their belt, society members put on one of the South’s most professional and enjoyable pilgrimage presentations. This year’s breath of fresh air comes from never-before-shown properties and enthusiastic new owners of old houses.

One of this year’s featured country plantations is a remarkable house called Woodland, a story of unexpected twists and turns, intergenerational connections and a fascinating trip all the way across the Mighty Mississippi to the ancestral lands of the present owner in West Feliciana, a journey across hundreds of miles and two centuries. A grand Greek Revival house, Woodland was built in the mid-1800s on a sugar plantation near the steamboat town of Washington, but had been abandoned for years and was facing demolition when Cammie and David Norwood saved it. It took a year to prepare the old structure to be hauled circuitously along 375 miles of back roads and another several years to put it back together. Now the Woodland house has been returned to its original glory, filled with fine family furnishings and anchored to its pastoral site by well-planned landscaping, looking as if it has been there forever.

GreenwoodAnother country plantation home with a remarkable history is glorious Greek Revival Greenwood, which has enjoyed more than its fair share of miraculous resurrections. Its story began in 1798, when widowed Olivia Ruffin Barrow journeyed by covered wagon to Spanish Feliciana. One of her grandsons would elope with young Eliza Pirrie, Audubon’s pupil. In 1830 Olivia’s son William Ruffin Barrow engaged prominent architect James Coulter to build a fine home on family property that would grow to 12,000 acres.

In 1915 Frank and Naomi Fisher Percy restored the house and opened it to the public. Featured in magazines, visited by tourists and beloved by Hollywood, it was called by National Geographic the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in the South. But on the night of August 1, 1960, lightning started a fire and within three hours, there was nothing left but 28 Doric columns and some free-standing chimneys. These ruins touched the hearts of Walton Barnes and his son Richard, who purchased the house site and 278 acres in 1968 and began the enormous effort of rebuilding. In July 2016, along came new owners Julie and Hal Pilcher, recently retired with the energy and enthusiasm to undertake significant improvements to ready the home for its first pilgrimage appearance.

CedarsAn earlier country home also featured for the first time on the Audubon Pilgrimage this year is The Cedars, its design and first cash crop—tobacco—bespeaking the Virginia background of original owner Simon Hearty, for whom the property was surveyed beginning in 1790. The house was built between 1793 and 1795, and it was said that the artist John James Audubon sketched the birdlife on Cedars Lane and visited with the family there. After Thomas Butler purchased the property from his mother-in-law in 1879, his two daughters, Mamie and Sarah, who stayed in New Orleans after graduating from Newcomb, returned as spinsters to spend weekends in a house enlarged with two-story octagonal additions; subsequent owners, the Fred Kings, raised a family in a home they too improved.

Today The Cedars is houses a vibrant young family, the Andrew Grezaffis. They have filled it with an eclectic mixture of furnishings imparting the feel of having been lived in by generations of the same family, as all old homes should feel, although the Grezaffis and their five small children have been in residence only a few years.

Lise's CottageIn historic downtown St. Francisville are a couple of featured cottages across from the parish courthouse. Miss Lise’s Cottage was originally built in Bayou Sara, the flood-prone port city on the banks of the Mississippi River. In the late 1800s it was hauled up the hill into St. Francisville, safe from the floodwaters, its two rooms home for the first “telephone girl” whose early switchboard was on the second floor of the nearby bank.

Until recently a conveniently located attorney’s office, now it puts the WOW factor in this year’s pilgrimage and shows how adaptable these old structures can be in the right hands. The exterior facade retains the traditional Creole cottage character. but oh, that unexpected interior-- all black and white and simply stunning, showing what happens when you turn loose a gifted career architect, Jim Dart, and a frustrated designer of equal talent, David Anthony Parker II, on a charming little historic cottage, where the juxtaposition of antique and contemporary is stunning and a carefully curated collection of modern art strikes a happy balance with treasured family antiques.

DartSome of the best-loved pieces descend from Dart’s grandfather, an engineer and attorney whose law office next door to Miss Lise’s Cottage is now home to Kora, Grezaffi and Levasseur Capital Management (yes, the same Grezaffi whose home The Cedars is another pilgrimage feature). Built in 1842, it has housed such notable barristers as Uriah B. Phillips who was blown up in a mid-1800s steamboat explosion, and Louisiana’s last antebellum governor Robert C. Wickliffe.

Besides these featured historic structures, pilgrimage visitors are welcomed at Afton Villa Gardens, Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, three 19th-century churches in town and beautiful St. Mary’s in the country, as well as the Rural Homestead with lively demonstrations of the rustic skills of daily pioneer life. Audubon Market Hall hosts an impressive exhibit of more than sixty of Audubon’s Birds of America done in the Felicianas, Audubon State Historic Site features morning explorations of nature photography and birding programs (led by C.C. Lockwood and Dr. Tom Tully) augmented by a bird walk at Oak Hill (home of artist Murrell Butler). There will also be floral arranging demos, and this year the hills are alive with the sound of music as special performances are scheduled for each featured home and throughout downtown St. Francisville in tribute to the late father of this year’s chairman. Daytime features are open 9:30 to 5, Sunday 11 to 4 for tour homes; Friday evening activities are scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m., Saturday soiree begins at 7 p.m.

The Historic District around Royal Street is filled during the day with the happy sounds of costumed children singing and dancing the Maypole; in the evening as candles flicker and fireflies flit among the ancient moss-draped live oaks, there is no place more inviting for a leisurely stroll. Friday evening features old-time Hymn Singing at the United Methodist Church, Graveyard Tours at Grace Episcopal cemetery (last tour begins at 8:15 p.m.), and a wine and cheese reception at Bishop Jackson Hall (7 to 9 p.m.) featuring Vintage Dancers and young ladies modeling the pilgrimage’s exquisitely detailed 1820’s evening costumes, nationally recognized for their authenticity. Light UpThe Night, the Saturday evening soiree, features live music and dancing, dinner and drinks beginning at 7 p.m. For tickets and tour information, contact West Feliciana Historical Society, Box 338, St. Francisville, LA 70775; phone 225-635-6330 or 225-635-4224; online www.westfelicianahistory.org, email wfhistsociety@gmail.com. A package including daytime tours and all evening entertainment Friday and Saturday is available. Tickets can be purchased at the Historical Society Museum on Ferdinand Street.

festivals a walk in the parkOther events planned for March in St. Francisville include A Walk in the Park on Saturday, March 3, from 9 to 4, bringing a festive gathering of musicians, artists and craftsmen to oak-shaded Parker Park.
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.

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 www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Steamboats & St. Francisville: A Match Made in Heaven
By Anne Butler

 steamboat coming“Steamboat’s a’coming!” That excited cry from plantation landings and municipal wharves heralded the first sighting of one of the big, fancy floating palaces of the 19th century coming around the bend. Traversing that era’s main transportation corridor--the Mississippi River, the boats were lifelines to the world for isolated little communities, bringing news and mail, passengers, trade goods and fine furnishings, and picking up the all-important cotton crop for shipment to markets around the globe. All through the 1800s these vessels came and went, until the coming of the railroad and safer overland transportation options put them out of business.

But now, in the 21st century, that cry rings out once again in St. Francisville. Several companies operate fleets of attractive riverboats enticing passengers to cruise the Lower Mississippi River and rivers in other parts of the country as well. The little town of St. Francisville welcomes them back with open arms, and not just for the nostalgic charm. While tugs and barges handle most of the commercial shipments along the river now, the steamboats and river cruises provide an economic boost to every little port city they visit.

steamboat It’s a win-win situation. The well-travelled passengers come from all over the globe, but they all say that St. Francisville’s charming downtown is one of their very favorite stops along the river. The entire downtown area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Historic District, and it is also a Main Street community as well, participating in the National Trust program designed to recognize significant early downtown areas across the country. Over the years, the mix of residential and commercial structures has given St. Francisville a 24-hour presence downtown, important in keeping it alive and vital, and visitors are impressed with its cleanliness and friendliness as well as its sense of place and appreciation of history.

The local Tourist Commission greets each arriving passenger at the landing below St. Francisville’s bluff, providing a cheery welcome and a roomy canvas shopping bag with maps and discount coupons, stenciled with the town brand: “St. Francisville: We LOVE it here,” plus the admonition to fill it up! The motorcoaches that follow the boats on land offer continuous complimentary Hop On Hop Off circuits throughout the downtown area, stopping at intervals so passengers (some days as many as 300!) can jump on and off to shop and tour.

St. Francisville’s wonderful little shops say the boat customers mean the difference between surviving and thriving. With the advent of online shopping, overall retail stores across the country have suffered tremendous losses; in 2017 nearly 70,000 retail jobs disappeared and big-name department stores closed as did many malls. But surprisingly, the little independent retailers are seeing a resurgence of business. It’s the personal attention, unique inventory and proximity to other venues that have kept customers patronizing these mom-and-pop stores.

While shoppers will no doubt continue to get their cases of toilet paper from Sam’s or Costco, small downtown retailers across the country are proving the most resilient of brick-and-mortar survivors, according to one newspaper columnist who insists “Main Street shops (are) not dead yet.” Books can be ordered online, sure, but indie book stores like the one in St. Francisville can offer much more than a book, with author book signings, comfy seating for book club meetings, children’s programs, and personal recommendations. Clothing can also be ordered online, but can it be tried on for fit, can the fabric be felt and the cut observed close-up, can the buyer look in the mirror and see if it actually lives up to the online promise as shown on a six-foot 100-pound professional model?

shopsThis year there are more than 100 steamboat stops scheduled for St. Francisville. These upscale riverboats offer their passengers a cultural learning experience and a more relaxed way to travel than the enormous ocean-going cruise ships overflowing with rowdy young funseekers.

The American Queen is the largest riverboat ever built, capable of hosting 400 guests in fine accommodations with onboard amenities like topnotch entertainment and a grand dining room with 20-foot ceilings. Owned by the American Queen Steamboat Company, the vessel actually can still use steam power. A second all-suite luxury vessel called the American Duchess has joined the fleet this year, and one or the other of the AQ boats will be stopping in St. Francisville several times a week, offering not only Hop On Hop Off shore excursions but also premium tours to sites of historic interest (outlying plantations or the Louisiana State Penitentiary, unlikeliest of tourist attractions but a fascinatingly different tour). In 2012 another organization, American Cruise Lines, launched the Queen of the Mississippi and then added the America and yet another boat, newest fleet of river cruise ships and paddlewheelers on the Mississippi.

boatBoth of these, American Queen Steamboat Company and American Cruise Lines, hire local guides whose knowledge of area history and attractions enhance the experience of visitors going on the premium tours and guided shore excursions. This expands the economic impact of riverboat passenger visits beyond the downtown shops, providing additional reward for area plantations and attractions as well as local residents serving as bus guides. Additionally, the motorcoach drivers often spend the night as they follow the boats on land, providing income for local overnight accommodations, restaurants and gas stations.

St. Francisville’s Main Street manager and Tourist Commission director comments that the influx of visitors from steamboats has had an extremely positive impact on the community. Sales tax collections are up, and there is also the promise of future visits by boat passengers, who often return on their own for longer stays in an area they had time to enjoy only briefly on cruise stops. Says one docent at the local historical society museum and visitor center, “The riverboat visits mean very good sales, and they love our town, just like we do.”

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.

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.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).

Sunday, January 14, 2018

What's Old is New Again

St. Francisville’s Surrounding Plantation Country: What’s Old is New Again
By Anne Butler
St. Francisville has been the center of culture, government and religion since it was settled in the opening years of the 19th century, but the little port city of Bayou Sara along the Mississippi River just below the bluffs was the center of commerce, while the surrounding plantation country provided the economic driver for both communities. Today, Bayou Sara is no more and St. Francisville has become the center of commerce as well as culture, but there remain a number of recently rejuvenated historic plantations that attract visitors seeking an understanding of what life was like in the Cotton Kingdom.

oakleyOne of the most significant and earliest of Louisiana’s state historic sites, Oakley Plantation and its surrounding hundred wooded acres reopened with an old-time Christmas celebration the first weekend in December after being closed for nearly a year for lead abatement. During that time the house underwent a complete exterior restoration and was repainted in the original colors, white with darker green trim, plus interior paint touch-ups and furniture conservation. Popular as the central focus of the Audubon State Historic Site for more than half a century, Oakley is a splendid West Indies-style three-story structure with jalousied galleries and has a fascinating visitor center/museum, picnic facilities and hiking trails, detached plantation kitchen reconstructed on original foundations with weaving and wash rooms, a barn full of horse-drawn vehicles and farm implements, and several rustic slave cabins.

These dependencies are periodically utilized to augment the house tour with demonstrations of early practical skills and fascinating living-history events; weekends in January the highlights will be “Time Travelers” featuring the thunder of cannon in 1810 (January 6); “The Boys of ’61” replicating conditions on the eve of war as civilians become soldiers (January 20); and “Open-Hearth Candle Making” (January 21).

Oakley Plantation was responsible for artist John James Audubon’s fruitful stay in 1821, when he was hired to tutor Eliza, the young daughter of the Pirrie family, and painted dozens of his Birds of America studies in the area. His pupil would enter into marriages that tied Oakley to other early plantation families. Her first marriage was to a dashing young Barrow cousin who contracted pneumonia on their honeymoon and died before the birth of their first child; her last was to an attorney called by her friends “a trifling sponge,” lured away by the Gold Rush and absent when she died of childbed fever.

It was her second marriage, to the eminently respectable first rector of Grace Episcopal Church, that produced the descendants who were still struggling to keep Oakley going into the 20th century; it also united the plantation with another state historic site, Rosedown, when Eliza’s son James Pirrie Bowman married the daughter of Rosedown’s Barrow/Turnbull family.

rosedownA glorious double-galleried Greek Revival structure embraced by the surrounding 28 acres of formal gardens, the house at Rosedown was constructed in the 1830s and remained for more than a century in the original family. Now owned by the state, it is not only a State Historic Site but also a National Historic Landmark in recognition of its enormous significance. A number of original outbuildings remain, and as at Oakley they are often used to illustrate various facets of early plantation life, as are the grand gardens.

Another important Greek Revival structure is Greenwood Plantation, which has recently found new owners and a new lease on life, having enjoyed more than its fair share of miraculous resurrections. Its story began in 1798, when widowed Olivia Ruffin Barrow arrived with 50 wagons full of possessions, 150 slaves, six children (some grown), and the wealth with which to build a new life in a new land. One of her grandsons became the first and short-lived husband of Audubon’s pupil Eliza Pirrie.

Another grandson, William Ruffin Barrow, in 1830 built his home on family property that would eventually grow to 12,000 acres. Nearly 100 feet square, the Greenwood house was completely surrounded by 28 Doric columns of brick, rising more than 30 feet from a porch set 5 feet above ground level, supporting an intricately detailed entablature and solid copper roof topped by a belvedere from which Barrow could survey his cotton and sugar cane fields being tilled by some 750 slaves.

The Civil War brought tragedy, but in the early 1900s the plantation was purchased by Frank and Naomi Fisher Percy, who restored the house and enjoyed sharing it with the public. Surrounded by live oaks, Greenwood was called the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in the South, featured in magazines, visited by thousands of tourists, and beloved by Hollywood as a movie setting. And then on the night of August 1, 1960, tragedy struck again; lightning started a fire that destroyed everything but columns and chimneys. Eventually the house was rebuilt as close to the original as possible, and now new owners have brought new enthusiasm, sharing the home with visitors for tours and special events as well as overnight stays.

myrtles frontYet another plantation house that has found new energy and enthusiasm with a new generation is The Myrtles, which has its own connections with Oakley Plantation and Audubon’s pupil Eliza. Eliza’s mother Lucretia Alston Pirrie’s first husband was Ruffin Gray; her sister Ann Alston was the wife of early settler Alexander Stirling, and their son, born in 1795 and named Ruffin Gray Stirling for his uncle, purchased The Myrtles in 1834.

The plantation, originally known as Laurel Grove, was established in the late 1790s by General David Bradford, who represented Monongahela Valley farmers opposing an excise tax levied on their corn whiskey by US authorities. As one of the ringleaders of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion, Bradford narrowly escaped with his life to Spanish territory and built the north section of the house on a land grant of 650 arpents. After yellow fever epidemics in 1823 and 1824 killed the wife and two young children of the next occupant of The Myrtles, the property was sold, along with improvements and slaves, for $46,853.17 to Ruffin Gray Stirling. After a succession of owners, it was purchased in 1992 by the Moss family, and now a new generation, son Morgan, is implementing a long-needed restoration and re-landscaping with big plans for the future of this popular tourist destination.

Other plantations, the early Cottage Plantation which remarkably resisted gentrification through the generations of the same family, and Catalpa Plantation which has family ties to Rosedown and Oakley, are open only on weekends (The Cottage) or by appointment (Catalpa). Greenwood, Myrtles, and Rosedown are open to the public daily except holidays, while Oakley is open Wednesday through Sunday. Together they present a good picture of early life in the Felicianas, when pioneering families were joined together by blood, marriage, economic necessities and history, and they continue to hold much interest for the steady stream of tourists enjoying the St. Francisville area.

greenwoodLocated 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 .

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).