St. Francisville’s Spring Fling: Audubon Pilgrimage
By Anne Butler
The forty-fifth annual Audubon Pilgrimage March 18, 19 and 20, 2016, celebrates a southern spring in St. Francisville, the glorious garden spot of Louisiana’s English Plantation Country. For over four decades 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 45 years of experience under their belt, society members put on one of the South’s most professional and enjoyable pilgrimage presentations.
This year’s tour features several townhouses in St. Francisville’s National Register Historic District and two early plantations in the surrounding countryside, each illustrative of the interconnections of early homes and family histories.
The Cabildo, thought to have been built on Royal Street in St. Francisville as early as 1809 with handhewn joists and brick walls 22 inches thick, is a Spanish colonial structure used over the years as monastery, tavern frequented by Audubon, bank/counting house, West Feliciana’s first parish courthouse beginning in 1824, barbershop, grocery, hotel, drugstore, library, and now beautifully restored present residence of Peggy and Joey Gammill, preservation/conservation experts.
Vinci Cottage at Virginia, all of 1000 feet, was built in the forties of materials salvaged from the detached kitchen and servants’ quarters behind the 1817 historic townhouse on Royal Street called Virginia, perfect for owner Nancy Vinci’s “downsizing with dog.” Supplementing the postage-stamp lawn of this cottage is Woodleigh Garden, just across Royal, a beautifully landscaped hillside setting filled by owners Leigh Anne and Butch Jones with heirloom pass-along plantings and a pleasant brick courtyard with fountain.
The Myrtles, a raised English cottage begun in the late 1790s by Judge David Bradford, leader of the Whiskey Rebellion, was enlarged by subsequent owners throughout the 19th century. The long front gallery is graced with grape-cluster wrought iron, and inside rooms are formalized with elaborate plaster friezework and marble mantels in the twin parlors. John E. and Teeta Moss are the current owners.
Rosale Plantation, north of St. Francisville at Wakefield, was part of early settler Alexander Stirling’s enormous 1790s landholdings; when the elaborate brick house his daughter Ann Skillman built in 1836 burned in the 1880s, the family moved into the two-story schoolhouse, built the same time. Today the simple farmhouse with sweeping vistas of manicured oak-shaded lawns and multiple ponds is owned by Peter and Lynda Truitt.
Other popular features of the 2016 Audubon Pilgrimage include Afton Villa Gardens, Audubon (Oakley) and Rosedown 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. An Audubon Play will be performed several times daily on Saturday and Sunday in recently restored Temple Sinai. 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, Audubon Play in Temple Sinai, 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 Up The 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.westfelicianahistoricalsociety.org, email
. 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.
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, 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 (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday).
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.