Fall is Fine in St. Francisville, LA
By Anne Butler
Autumn’s cooling temperatures tempt hikers into the rugged Tunica Hills, the falling leaves having opened up vistas not visible in summer’s tangled overgrowth and the mosquitoes, poison ivy and snakes no longer nuisances. The waterfalls of nearby Clark Creek Natural Area are an especially popular destination for outdoor recreation enthusiasts based in St. Francisville.
But hiking is not the only Happening in the Hills. Bucking bulls and barrel racers, garden parties and workshops on plantings, gifted artisans and musicians, ghost stories to scare the pants off visitors, even intrepid warriors dashing through mud and other challenging obstacles like the fearsome trail called The Beast: just another typical October in St. Francisville, certainly offering something for everyone.
Every Sunday in October the Louisiana State Penitentiary on LA 66 at Angola puts on “The Wildest Show in the South,” with a huge variety of prisoner hobbycraft sales, tons of food, inmate bands, and hair-raising rodeo events unique to this prison setting. Other than the ladies’ barrel racing, all rodeo participants are inmates in this enormous maximum-security penitentiary, and they keep the crowds on the edge of their seats from the moment the black-clad Angola Rough Riders charge into the ring at full gallop, flags flying. The covered arena seats over 10,000 and fills up every Sunday. Grounds open at 9 a.m. for the arts and crafts, and the fascinating state museum at the entrance gate will also be open, allowing visitors to make a full day of it. The rodeo starts at 2, and advance tickets are a must. Prison website at www.angolarodeo.com provides information and spells out regulations which must be observed on penitentiary grounds.
The Angola rodeo got its start in the 1960s, mostly for the entertainment of prison staff who sat on pickup tailgates or hay bales to watch a few inmates test their skills. But in 1965 a world-champion steer wrestler and bronc buster named Jack Favor made the mistake of picking up a couple of crooked hitchhikers bent on murder. Found guilty of involvement in the crime (he would be exonerated in a later trial), this Texas cowboy was sent to Angola and soon transformed the rodeo into a professional production attracting big-name entertainers and thousands of visitors, his contacts and vision adding excitement with such crowd favorites as the “Bust Out” when six bucking bulls and inmate riders enter the arena simultaneously, and “Guts & Glory” with inmates on foot scrambling to detach a ticket worth $100 from between the horns of an enraged Brahma bull.
The annual Southern Garden Symposium in St. Francisville offers a change of pace, celebrating the area’s great gardening tradition and fostering its continuation by convening horticulture enthusiasts for a weekend of demonstrations, lectures and tours through the area’s glorious antebellum gardens. This year’s 28th annual event, combining prestigious speakers, historic surroundings and engaging social events, takes place Friday, October 14, and Saturday, October 15. Proceeds fund beautification projects, scholarships to LSU’s School of Landscape Architecture, and garden enhancements at state historic sites. For information, visit www.southerngardensymposium.org.
This being the season of witches and goblins, the spooky Myrtles Plantation Halloween Experience scares the pants off visitors every weekend evening throughout October as they tour what is billed as one of the most haunted homes in the country. For information, www.myrtlesplantation.com, 800-809-0565 or 225-635-6277.
The last weekend in October, Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th, the Yellow Leaf Arts Festival draws crowds of art-lovers to oak-shaded Parker Park with its bandstand right in the middle of St. Francisville’s downtown National Register-listed Historic District. A festival called “authentic, genuine and full of small-town charm,” Yellow Leaf from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. showcases the works and talents of more than 50 artists and crafters who offer paintings, metal and woodwork, fabric art, books, sculpture, glass art, jewelry, carvings and lots more. This outdoor celebration of all things creative also includes art activities for children and local farmers with home-grown sweet potatoes both cooked and raw in bulk.
The Yellow Leaf Festival, they say, really is all about the art---no mass productions, no noisy generators, no train rides, although there are usually a few local kiddies hawking refreshments from little red wagons. There’s also great live music both Saturday and Sunday, with guitarist Verlon Thompson, The Fugitive Poets, The Wilder Janes, and others. Featured resident artist this year is quilter Judith Braggs, recognized for her amazing talent in rendering folk art scenes in textiles. Sponsors include the local umbrella arts agency called Arts For All, plus Birdman Coffee, West Feliciana Parish Hospital and the Bank of St. Francisville. For information, telephone 800-715-0510 or access online http://westfelicianaarts.com.
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 (check locally; it has new owners), 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.
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).