Thursday, April 29, 2010


by Anne Butler

Greenwood Burning
It was a dark and stormy night. Really, it was. When lightning struck the uppermost corner of glorious Greek Revival Greenwood Plantation near St. Francisville on the night of August 1, 1960, the first awareness of the impending tragedy came from a glimpse of the glow of flames in the reflecting pond. And by the time help arrived, the fire had lit up the night so brilliantly, according to one eyewitness, that it was possible to read a book in the glare.

Laurie Fisher, 15 at the time, lived just across the road from Greenwood. He vividly remembers that a rare and violent cool front passed through that evening, with the worst lightning he’d ever seen in his life. “Lightning struck all over that Greenwood hill,” he recalls. He had been clipping pastures, but hurriedly drove in from the field, turned on a heater and pulled his big 12-pound cat onto his lap to warm up.
Laurie Fisher 50yrs later.
Laurie’s aunt and uncle, Naomi F. and Frank Percy, had purchased Greenwood in the early 1900s from the Reed family, restoring the magnificent home and sharing it with the public for tours, magazine features, even as a setting for movies like Drango. The house was called the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in the South, nearly 100 feet square and completely surrounded by 28 Doric columns of slave-made brick supporting a solid copper roof topped by a belvedere from which the Mississippi River was visible.

The evening of August 1, the elderly Percys were enjoying a visit from a young grandson, Jimmy Lathrop. He would be the first to spot the reflection of the flames in the pond and sound the alarm.

Headlines Local Newspaper

Greenwood Today
Word spread quickly. By the time the old two-ton 1953 Chevy firetruck lumbered out from St. Francisville, neighbors and relatives had rushed over to help salvage what furnishings they could. Crowds of spectators clogged the narrow country lanes, and the ground was so rain-soaked that the heavy firetruck quickly got stuck. Laurie was sent home to unhook the cutter from his tractor so he could pull the firetruck out of the pond. The heat from the flames, he recalls, was so intense that the firefighters faced an impossible task, with the hollow cypress walls acting like flues to accelerate the destruction.

By morning, there was nothing left of Greenwood but the brick columns and several forlorn chimneys stark against the sky. Laurie says the embers from the fire stayed hot for 10 whole days. “We never felt the world was the same after such an enormous tragedy,” he says today, his voice still tinged with sadness.
Only the Columns Remained after the 1960 Fire
Little did he know that Greenwood would rise from the ashes like the phoenix to become one of the St. Francisville area’s most appealing tourist destinations once again. After languishing untouched (but never unloved) for nearly a decade, the romantic beauty of the ruins resonated with the late Baton Rouge attorney Walton Barnes and his son, Richard. They purchased the house site and 300 surrounding acres in 1968, determined to return Greenwood to its antebellum glory days, when builder William Ruffin Barrow engaged prominent architect James Coulter to build a fine home on family property that would eventually grow to 12,000 acres for the cultivation of first cotton and then sugarcane.

Guided by vintage films and photographs, tattered magazine features and fading family recollections, the Barnes spent some 20 years reconstructing the home as close as possible to the original. Today it once again welcomes visitors for tours, overnight stays in a detached B&B structure across the reflecting pond, corporate workshops and functions, beautiful weddings and social events. Hollywood has returned as well, with such films as Louisiana, both parts of North and South, and Sister, Sister using Greenwood as a setting for memorable scenes.

Costumed Hostesses
Greenwood is but one of six plantations making the St. Francisville area (on US Highway 61 between Baton Rouge and Natchez) a year-round tourist destination. Besides Greenwood, Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, Butler Greenwood, The Cottage and The Myrtles—are open for daily tours, and Afton Villa Gardens opens seasonally. There are unique little shops in restored historic structures, and reasonably priced meals are available in a nice array of restaurants in St. Francisville. Some of the state's most unique Bed and Breakfasts offer overnight accommodations ranging from golf clubs and lakeside resorts to historic townhouses and country plantations; modern motel facilities can accommodate busloads. The scenic unspoiled Tunica Hills region surrounding St. Francisville offers excellent biking, hiking, birding, horseback riding and other recreational activities. The month of May is filled with special events, from a Memorial Day weekend cycling classic to a simple garden stroll, from community market day in the park to nature walks and living history demonstrations at state historic sites, and even a performance by the Baton Rouge Symphony (check the events calendar on the West Feliciana Tourist Commission website at This is also the site for online coverage of tourist facilities and attractions in the St. Francisville area; see or, or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-4224.