Colorful Azaleas and Costumes of the 1820s Welcome Spring in St. Francisville, LA
Colorful Azaleas and Costumes of the 1820s Welcome Spring in St. Francisville, LA
By Anne Butler
The forty-eighth annual Audubon Pilgrimage March 15, 16 and 17, 2019, 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 nearly half a century of experience under their belt, society members put on one of the South’s most professional and enjoyable pilgrimage presentations.
Featured this year are three historic plantation homes in the countryside and two townhouses, plus lots of extras.
Sunnyside, built in 1838 in Pointe Coupee Parish, was disassembled, trucked across the Mississippi River bridge in 1997, then meticulously reassembled on the Tunica Trace, retaining its original footprint. A fine example of vernacular architecture, its bluffland design is eminently suite to the historic Weyanoke community and its period landscaping anchors house to site as if it’s been there for centuries. Historian David Floyd and wife Marla have raised two children there.
Laurel Hill Plantation was purchased in the 1830s by Judge Edward McGehee, founder of the early standard-gauge West Feliciana Railroad that hauled cotton through this plantation country to the Mississippi River port at Bayou Sara. In the 1870s daughter Caroline and her husband Duncan Stewart enlarged the original small Carolina-I structure to accommodate their growing family. Beautifully restored, it is now the property of Jimmy and Mary Farrar Hatchette.
Puente Largo, built in the 1850s in Tangipahoa Parish and moved to West Feliciana in 1997, is a handsome raised Creole cottage with four large rooms and spacious hallway on the upper premier etage, above what had been an unfinished ground-floor storage for wagons and buggies but is now closed in. Broad front stairs access the upper gallery. Used as a field hospital during the Civil War, Puente Largo has been beautifully furnished and landscaped by owners Mike and Krista Dumas.
In St. Francisville’s downtown National Register-listed Historic District is the Brasseaux House, quintessentially charming cottage complete with Victorian gallery trim, picket fence and climbing roses. It was built in 1895 by Albert Sydney Brasseaux, who was named for his father’s commanding general in the Civil War. Its architectural style is called southern dogtrot, and its extensive sloping back yard shows why St. Francisville is called the little town that’s two miles long and two yards wide. It is now home to a vibrant young family, the Magruder Hazlips.
And then there’s the Coffin House, tiny stepped-roof structure built around 1903 right on St. Francisville’s main thoroughfare, proving history is nothing if not dynamic and showing the amazing adaptability of even the most unassuming of historic structures. Previously used for strictly utilitarian purposes including the storage of coffins, it is now a delightfully cozy pied-a-terre for visiting doting grandparents, Don and Harriet Ayres.
In addition to the featured homes, pilgrimage visitors are also welcomed to Afton Villa Gardens, Audubon (Oakley) and Rosedown State Historic Sites, three 19th-century churches and Temple Sinai in town and beautiful St. John’s and St. Mary’s in the country, plus the Rural Homestead with lively demonstrations of the rustic skills of daily pioneer life.
Audubon Market Hall hosts an exhibit of the West Feliciana works of the late Charles Reinike (1906-1983), one of New Orleans’ most respected landscape artists. Passionately in love with South Louisiana from New Orleans through the wetlands and the hills of rural plantation country, Reinike and wife Vera opened an art school in the French Quarter in the 1930s-1940s and brought their students to summer art camp on their West Feliciana property where their daughter lives today. Reinike’s paintings are nostalgic but not saccharine, his son Charles III explains; “he liked the grittier side of things...depicting rural Louisiana and chronicling the early African-American cabins and lifestyle for their honesty and simplicity, as well as the residential and industrial scenes of New Orleans and the Mississippi River, and the beauty of the bayous and shrimp boats.”
An impressive exhibit of Audubon’s Birds of Feliciana hangs at Oakley Plantation (Audubon State Historic Site). Other special events called Exploring Nature and Birding remind of continued ties to the birdlife so beloved by the artist: Friday bird walk is led by local artist Murrell Butler at his Oak Hill property; Saturday the Wildlife Hospital of Louisiana offers a glimpse of live-and-in-person rehab survivors (Red-Winged Scarlett, Red-Tailed Hawk, Mississippi Kite, Broad Winged Hawk, Eastern Screech Owl); Sunday’s bird walk is led by LSU avian vet Dr. Tom Tully at Oakley.
Daytime features are open 9:30 to 5; 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 the newly restored St. Francisville Inn showing off the exquisitely detailed 1820’s evening costumes, nationally recognized for their authenticity. Light Up The Night, the fun Saturday evening soiree, features live music and dancing, dinner and drinks.
Beautiful oak-shaded Parker Park in the midst of St. Francisville’s National Register-listed Historic District is the scene for two other special activities in March. A Walk In The Park on Saturday, March 2nd, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. will feature live music plus vendors offering varied crafts, art and culinary specialties, while March 30th from 10 to 10 the Tunica Hills Music Festival and Jam has professional musicians performing on stages but also dispersed throughout the park to encourage pop-up jams everywhere. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own instruments and join in the free fun.
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 is open in season and is spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) 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. 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).