St. Francisville: Soothing to the Soul
St. Francisville: Soothing to the Soul
By Anne Butler, Images by Darrell Chitty
They come from every direction…from north or south along crowded US Highway 61, from the east via LA Highway 10, from the west across the new Audubon Bridge over the Mississippi River…and once they cross that parish line into West Feliciana, there is a collective audible sigh. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!
What is it that makes St. Francisville and West Feliciana so soothing to the soul, a respite from the hustle and bustle of our hurried harried modern lifestyle? It is now, and always has been, a sanctuary, and not in the current politicized immigration sense. Somehow it has managed to strike the right balance between preservation and progress, preserving significant pieces of the past while providing modern-day comforts and services. Someone recalled that as children in pre-bridge days, when the ferry docked at the foot of the St. Francisville hill they pretended it was a time machine, because it was like going back in time, with the extended branches of the ancient live oaks welcoming as if into the arms of loving grandparents.
History, after all, is something to learn from and build upon; the lessons of the past---both good and bad---show us where we came from and where we have the potential to go. And so, amidst the wonderful array of carefully preserved historic homes and churches and scenic unspoiled wilderness areas, there are also modern medical facilities and libraries, top school system and a new inclusiveness that celebrates the cultural contributions of every level of society. The natural beauties of the landscape that so excited artist John James Audubon 200 years ago continue to inspire creative souls into the 21st century, and joyful festivals and concerts show off the talents of today’s crop of artists, musicians, writers, crafters, chefs and other gifted residents.
A Facebook request drew insightful comments from a wide variety of St. Francisville lovers---those born and bred here who never left, whose bloodlines run as deep and strong as the roots of those majestic live oaks; those who couldn’t wait to leave, but found themselves inevitably drawn back home; and those who came to visit and simply never left. And there were three main themes as to why St. Francisville’s logo “We Love It Here” is so fitting. First, the rolling hills and deep hollows, the verdant pastoral reaches, the mighty river and bountiful blossoms in well-tended gardens with always the scent of sweet olive or some other old fragrance perfuming the air, the terrain unlike any other in flat swampy south Louisiana (as one said, when you live in the swamp, West Feliciana seems like mountains).
Second, the charm of St. Francisville’s streetscape with restored 19th-century homes and churches, giving a sense of place, and yes, it’s a small town but in a good way, with a beautiful sense of grace that soothes the mind and soul, free of too much glitz and commercialism. And third and perhaps most important, the people, warm and welcoming with an unmatched sense of community and heritage and hospitality, where one can sit peacefully on the gallery and listen to the stories and watch the night fall as fireflies flit through the live oaks. Essentially, as one said, it’s a beautiful state of mind, where neighbors show care and concern, and the sky is full of stars and you can actually hear the night sounds. What it is, to most who live here, is home, a lasting tribute to the generations who have struggled to protect and honor and cherish its resources, residents and rich history.
Can this feeling be captured in a book? You bet it can, and it has, in the newly released book called The Soul of St. Francisville by two who earlier collaborated on the initial volume, Spirit of St. Francisville. Anne Butler is the author of more than twenty books, whose passion is the preservation of Louisiana history and culture, and who feels a real sense of urgency in getting all this preserved in one permanent volume. Award-winning artist Darrell Chitty is a real Renaissance man whose never-ending quest for new knowledge and techniques leads him into the future of art as well as into the past. This book is a showcase of his varied talents; some portraits you’d swear were Old Masters and some have been executed in the most modern of art forms. And yes, they both have discerning and loving eyes that certainly can see into the depths of the soul.
The Soul of St. Francisville will be introduced at Hemingbough on Thursday, November 19, from 5 to 7 p.m. for a book signing and portrait reveal. The text of the book contains fascinating in-depth history and the compelling images perfectly capture scenes of St. Francisville’s smalltown charm…morning coffee at the café before work, catching the schoolbus on Royal St., sharing woodsman’s skills and love of nature with grandchildren, all illuminated by a magical light filtering through the Spanish moss hanging from the ancient live oaks.
While many fall gatherings have been cancelled due to the pandemic, The Myrtles hosts the St. Francisville Food and Wine Festival on Sunday, November 15, featuring celebrated chefs, creative dishes, craft cocktails and fine wines as well as lawn games. Tickets may be obtained through bontempstix.com.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, andNatchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination; check locally for coronavirus mitigation requirements, please. Several 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. 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 life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. While Clark Creek Nature Preserve remains closed to the public until after the first of the year, according to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, there are wonderful hiking trails at the Mary Ann Brown Preserve and Audubon State Historic Site, at the West Feliciana Parish Sports Park, and also in the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge (be sure to visit the Big Tree) and the Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area that are open. 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 in 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.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, or www.stfrancisville.net(the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).