St. Francisville’s Immigrants—then and now
By Anne Butler
It has been called the little town that’s two miles long and two yards wide, not much of an exaggeration, for the land falls off very steeply behind structures occupying the high ridge comprising its two main streets. As the area was under Spanish control as part of West Florida when it was laid out in 1807, St. Francisville’s two streets were dubbed Royal and Ferdinand in tribute to the Spanish crown. Royal boasts the most beautiful historic homes, but Ferdinand was originally the center of commerce and still is today, lined with boutique shops and art/antique galleries intermingled with Victorian cottages. This unusual mixture of residential and commercial structures gives a significant 24-hour presence to St. Francisville’s very-much-alive downtown, now designated in its entirety a National Register Historic District and a Main Street Community.
In the 19th century Ferdinand Street was a muddy dirt thoroughfare, scene of cattle drives and wagonloads of cotton being hauled down to the Mississippi River for shipment to markets around the globe. Below the bluff upon which St. Francisville developed, Ferdinand St. dropped down the hill by Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church where the monks from across the river came to bury their dead safe from the floodwaters. Along the river below St. Francisville was the port city of Bayou Sara, developed in the late 1700s when flatboaters pulled over to spend the night on the trip to New Orleans, their boats loaded with produce from the Ohio Valley and points west.
During much of the 19th century, Bayou Sara was the most important port on the Mississippi River between Natchez and New Orleans, with a mile of warehouses to store cotton plus extensive residential and commercial structures, its riverbanks lined with steamboats. The West Feliciana Historical Society museum on Ferdinand Street has an impressive display of vintage images showing early life in Bayou Sara, many showing floodwaters up to the roofs of houses and stores, and raised wooden walkways to provide dry passage for shoppers during flood times. This, of course, is one of the only unlevee-ed stretches of the Lower Mississippi, and with no levees to hold the water in its channel, when the Mississippi is running high, floodwaters engulf all of the lowlying lands below St. Francisville. During the devastating floods of the early 20th century, most of Bayou Sara was washed away or destroyed, leaving only stands of cottonwoods, willows, and the Corps of Engineers Mat Field where concrete mats are manufactured to line levees to combat erosion.
While the outlying plantations were established primarily by Anglos leaving the East Coast after the Revolutionary War, the 19th century saw a great influx of immigrants from the Old Country, especially Germans, both Jewish and Gentile, settling in Bayou Sara and St. Francisville, bringing with them skills in merchandising and financing which were sorely lacking in what was essentially an agrarian society that existed precariously on credit. The Jews, of course, were anxious to escape religious persecution abroad, and Gentiles too welcomed the chance to forge a new and prosperous life.
A collection of letters from Max Nuebling, covering the period from October 1822 as he leaves his home in Germany to join his uncle in Louisiana to August 1826, gives in fascinating detail an intimate look at life in early Bayou Sara/St. Francisville, where Uncle Dieter Holl operated a store in his home, now known as Propinquity. Young Nuebling’s writings, preserved at the West Feliciana Historical Society, also shed light on the appeal of this fledgling new country, with all its promised opportunities and freedoms, to immigrants from the Old Country, making them willing to risk life and limb on ocean voyages that were fraught with dangers and must have seemed interminable.
“Good Lord, what a difference between the free and easy life here, and over there,” wrote Max Nuebling to his family back in Germany. “Overbearing people that look down upon everyone else, because they hold some kind of official position and think they are better than everyone else, are unknown here. A man here is valued here according to what he is, and what he can do, and not the position he holds. Our sheriff, who holds a high position here, is the most friendly man one can meet; he talks to everyone, and any man can talk to him. Liberty is the greatest gift of manhood, and here we have real liberty, and I have no intention ever to return to my old home and end my days as a slave. Of course, I want to see you again, but only on a visit, and then to return to the Free America.”
Today Bayou Sara is long gone, but St. Francisville continues to attract new residents from near and far. Consistently ranked as one of Louisiana’s most popular tourist destinations, the little town of fewer than 2,000 residents has just as much to offer those who live there as those who simply visit. New restaurants and groceries, new library and bookstore, new boutique shops and galleries, new sports park offering not only recreational opportunities for all ages but a new focus on homegrown festivals as well, new hospital under construction, great hiking and historic attractions...no wonder its current logo boasts “We Love It Here.”
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.
There are several upcoming special events in St. Francisville during the month of June. The Walker Percy Weekend (June 3-5) attracts literary bon vivants to various downtown sites for a celebration of the late Louisiana novelist that features good food, craft beer and bourbon, live music, and discussions about books and southern culture under the live oaks. The following weekend, June 10-12, The Day The War Stopped is a Civil War re-enactment like no other, with evening graveside stories in historic Grace Church cemetery, vintage music and dancing, touching drama and a re-creation of the war-stopping burial of a Union gunboat commander complete with Yankee and Confederate Masons joining the Episcopal rector in the burial service.
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 visit www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).