MAY TRAVEL HIGHLIGHTS

in St. Francisville, Louisiana

by Anne Butler

The lovely little 19th-century rivertown of St. Francisville was the cultural and commercial center for the cotton plantations dotting the rolling hills and verdant pastures of the area known as English Louisiana.  Its early Anglo-Saxon settlers began arriving soon after the Revolutionary War, already well established, with big family groups and the means to develop the immense plantations. Butler Greenwood

From the wilderness these determined settlers carved cultural enclaves noted as much for fine architecture and refined living as for agricultural achievement.  Despite disastrous losses to fires, floods and the ravages of time, a surprising number of the early houses survive, many of them now accessible to visitors.  Within a few miles of St. Francisville are half a dozen of Louisiana's most interesting plantations, each representing a different period of life in this fascinating area.

The earliest plantations…The Cottage, Butler Greenwood and The Myrtles…are all listed on the National Register of Historic Places and date from the 1790's, when the first valiant efforts were made to tame the virgin Feliciana woodlands and till the rich river bottomlands to plant vast fields of valuable indigo for blue dye.  Because of difficulties competing with British Empire indigo and the health hazards in handling a crop which provided the basis for poisonous cyanide, the planters of English Louisiana soon switched to cotton, prospering sufficiently that they and other growers along the Great River Road from New Orleans to Natchez comprised a large percentage of America's millionaires by the mid-1800's.  The houses they built reflected their memories of Old Country homes as well as their staggering success in their new country, 

The land grant for The Cottage Plantation is dated 1795, and its long, rambling main house began as a simple structure of virgin cypress, which was expanded so skillfully over the years that the front gallery eventually had four French doors and nine windows opening onto it.  The house is surrounded by one of the area's most complete plantation complexes of original dependencies, including the outside kitchen and laundry room, commissary, milk house, smokehouse, carriage house containing an 1820 state carriage, several tenant houses and the law office of Judge Thomas Butler, US Congressman and first judge of the area when it became part of the United States in 1810. Cottage Plantation

Butler Greenwood Plantation is another early raised, rambling English-style cottage on lands granted in the 1790's to Samuel Flower, earliest physician in the area, whose daughter would marry the Chief Justice of the first Louisiana Supreme Court; their great-granddaughter married a Butler from The Cottage.  The house, with Victorian embellishments of the 1850's, is filled with priceless antiques, including the area's finest original formal Victorian parlor, its twelve-piece set of carved rosewood furniture still in the original upholstery and complemented by floor-to-ceiling gilded pier mirrors, floral Brussels carpet, Sevres vases and half a dozen original family portraits.  Butler Greenwood has the distinction of still being owned and occupied by the original family.  Its well-tended lawns are shaded by a huge grove of 200-year-old live oaks and graced by formal 19th-century gardens.

When David Bradford, Pennsylvania judge and wealthy businessman, obtained the land grant for The Myrtles in 1796, he was a fugitive from justice because of his role as leader of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion protesting a tax levied on spirits and other governmental abuses.  The small portion of the house Bradford built was purchased and expanded by Judge Clark Woodruff, whose enthusiasm waned upon the untimely deaths of his wife and small daughters in a yellow fever epidemic, and by 1834 The Myrtles had been sold to Ruffin Gray Stirling, who commenced an extensive remodeling which greatly enlarged and formalized the home.  A Reconstruction-era murder on the front gallery has given rise to chilling tales of unquiet spirits, and the weekend "ghost tours" are immensely popular.

These three early plantation houses in the St. Francisville area are similar in style, unpretentious raised cottages typical of the first-generation structures.   Oakley Plantation, completed in the early 1800's, is decidedly atypical, showing West Indies influence with two full stories and an attic atop a raised basement of brick, its jalousied galleries on both top floors connected by exterior staircases.   Oakley was built by Ruffin Gray.  After Gray's death, his widow Lucretia (aunt of The Myrtles' Ruffin Gray Stirling) married James Pirrie, and it was their daughter Eliza whose need of a tutor brought the flamboyant artist-naturalist John James Audubon to the plantation.  Struggling to send funds to his family while pursuing his dream of painting all the birds of the young country America, Audubon was to receive $60 per month plus room and board in exchange for instructing young Eliza in dancing, music, drawing, math and French; he would have half of each day free to devote to his own painting and studies, and he executed a number of his famous bird studies at Oakley in the 1820's. Myrtles

By the time the second and third generations of these plantation families built homes in English Louisiana in the 1830's, they had prospered sufficiently to afford grand Greek Revival structures, much more formal and elaborate than the first-generation houses.  Rosedown Plantation remains an outstanding example.  Built in 1835 by wealthy cotton planter Daniel Turnbull, the lavish double-galleried house is approached by a magnificent oak alley and surrounded by 28 acres of formal gardens designed by Martha Barrow Turnbull to equal the grandeur of Versailles and other great continental gardens she'd seen on her honeymoon.  Mrs. Turnbull was without doubt one of the great early southern horticulturists, and her gardening records proved invaluable in the restoration of the grounds, the formal plantings, and the 13 original historic outbuildings.

Another of the great Greek Revival plantation homes in the St. Francisville area was Greenwood, built in 1830 by William R. Barrow and designed by noted architect James Hammon Coulter.  Nearly 100 feet square, the home was completely surrounded by 28 huge Doric columns of slave-made brick, its copper roof topped by a belvedere from which Barrow could survey his 12,000 acres and look out to the Mississippi River several miles distant.  From the time it was opened to the public in the early 1900's by the Frank Percy family, Greenwood was toured by thousands, featured in magazines and beloved by Hollywood as a superb setting for movies.  But during a summer storm on August 1, 1960, lightning struck the house, and within three hours nothing was left of Greenwood but 28 columns and a few forlorn chimneys.  This was enough to touch the heart of the Walton Barnes family, who purchased the site and set about a 15-year reconstruction project which exactingly rebuilt the home and re-opened it to the touring public as well as to the movie industry.

These six plantation homes are open for tours daily, and they are all so different one from the other that they can all be seen without much duplication.  Rosedown and Oakley are State Historic Sites and frequently offer special interpretive programs throughout the year.  In May, Rosedown features programs beginning at 10 a.m. on Culinary and Medicinal Herbs on the 17th, and on Heirloom Plants on the 31st (for information, telephone 225-635-3110).  Audubon State Historic Site has special living-history programs for pre-registered school groups on most Fridays from 9 to 1; a Scavenger Hunt on the 2nd teaches about history and nature; a Barnyard Tour on the 9th features domestic farm animals both living and extinct; Field Day on the 16th showcases early 19th-century games and crafts.  In addition to these student-oriented programs, on May 3rd Oakley has a program on Heirloom Vegetables in the kitchen garden from 1 to 3; on the 10th a program on Ritual Mourning finds the house draped in mourning black from 10 to 4; and a program called Oakley 1821 on the 24th from 10 to 4 re-creates a day in the life of this early plantation during the period when the artist Audubon was in residence.  Audubon Family Nature Day on May 31st from 10 to 3 has one-hour sessions featuring talks on Audubon, nature walks, and time for nature drawing (for information, telephone 225-635-3739).

The other plantations…The Cottage, Butler Greenwood, The Myrtles and Greenwood…are privately owned and offer not only historic house tours but Bed & Breakfast accommodations as well, providing overnight visitors with a real feel for plantation living as they snooze in four-poster beds and awaken refreshed to fresh-dripped coffee and the soothing sounds of the natural surroundings. Museum

Observances of Memorial Day entice visitors to the St. Francisville area toward the end of the month.  On May 26 from 1 to 3, Locust Grove State Historic Site features cemetery tours through the peaceful graveyard which is the final resting place of Jefferson Davis' first wife, as well as reflections on the life of a Confederate soldier in the Felicianas. 

Throughout the month, the local West Feliciana Historical Society museum, in a restored hardware store in the middle of the St. Francisville Historic District, showcases special exhibits commemorating the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, including a copy of the original constitution of the Republic of West Florida and an explanation of why the Florida Parishes and St. Francisville really were not even part of the Purchase.

The St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination but is especially lovely this time of year, the cold woes of winter forgotten as antique roses clamber up Victorian porch posts and gardens rush to summer's lushness.  Besides the six historic plantations open for daily tours, Catalpa Plantation is open by reservation and magnificent Afton Villa Gardens opens seasonally.   Reasonably priced meals are available in a nice array of restaurants in St. Francisville, eclectic shops fill restored 19th-century structures throughout the historic downtown area, and some of the state's best Bed and Breakfasts offer overnight accommodations ranging from golf clubs and lakeside resorts to historic townhouses and country plantations; a modern motel has facilities to accommodate busloads.  The scenic unspoiled Tunica Hills region surrounding St. Francisville offers excellent biking, hiking, fishing, birding, horseback riding and other recreational activities.  For online coverage of tourist facilities, attractions and events in the St. Francisville area, see www.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisvilleovernight.com,  or telephone (225) 635-6330 or 635-3873. 


St. Francisville Overnight Town of St. Francisville Audubon Spring Pilgrimage
Audubon Country BirdFest WFP Tourism Website Feliciana Guide Post