St. Francisville & Floods: A Tale of a Travelling House
By Anne Butler
While St. Francisville developed on a high ridge overlooking the river, the port city of Bayou Sara was established in the late 1790s right on the banks of the Mississippi. Center of commerce for the surrounding plantation country, with a mile of warehouses to store cotton plus extensive residential and commercial sections, Bayou Sara was one of the 19th century’s most important river ports.
But just about every spring, as ice and snow melted upriver, a raging torrent of water raced downstream and through crevasses in flimsy levees to destroy everything in its path. This included Bayou Sara, but its residents, resilient souls that they were, came back year after year after year, at least until the 1920s.
In 1890 the New York Times described a levee break that inundated the entire town, stopping all business and compelling the abandonment of stores and homes by its 10,000 residents. Again in 1892 another flood put 10 feet of water into town, with considerable loss of property. Resourceful shopkeepers put merchandise on top shelves, tried to hold back floodwaters with mud boxes, and built raised wooden walkways and gangplanks so shoppers could keep their feet dry. But it was the flood of 1912 that was most devastating, with rising waters sending Bayou Sara residents rushing into the hills as large cracks appeared in the levee.
Beulah Smith Watts of Solitude Plantation vividly recounted the experience. “The rainy season began in the early spring of 1912. The melting ice and snow from the north began to swell the river. The Mississippi River began to rise and flood the low land. The levee which protected the town became threatened. Rains and winds caused alarm. The citizens of Bayou Sara worked day and night in the rain, filling sand bags to bank the levee in weakening places. School boys worked with them. Sand boils began to appear. Citizens of Bayou Sara were ordered to move livestock and possessions to higher lands. The rains had stopped, but the winds were high…The school was in St. Francisville. On May 2, 1912, before classes had started, whistles began blowing, and bells began tolling. We knew what had happened! School was dismissed, and we pupils ran to Catholic Hill to see the water rushing in, swallowing the town of Bayou Sara. The roar of onrushing water could be heard for miles. The crevasse was 187 feet wide. The next day nothing but the tops of houses were visible. Most of the houses were swept away by the strong current of rushing water, and debris floated in the water.”
The 1912 flood devastated areas all along the river, leaving hundreds homeless as rescue trains rushed to flooded areas to evacuate residents. At Bayou Sara, one newspaper account said, “The streets are under 25 feet of water. When the water rushed in late yesterday, houses were toppled from their foundations. A great sheet of water leaping through a gap in the levee 300 feet wide swept everything before it. The smaller buildings were dashed against the more substantial structures and the debris carried on by the flood…Men and women ran wildly into their homes, picked up their children and fled, leaving all their belongings behind. Others took their positions in boats, and were picked up by the crest of the flood and carried miles from the town.”
And then came the great flood of April 1927 that displaced close to a million people along the Mississippi River corridor, causing numerous deaths and threatening millions of acres of land. It was one of the world’s most devastating floods, called “the last uncontrolled rampage of the Mississippi River,” inundating 27,000 square miles. After that one, the Corps of Engineers began serious construction of substantial levees and flood control structures along the Mississippi River to protect heavily populated urban areas. But these efforts came too late to save the little port city of Bayou Sara; there’s nothing there now but a boat launch, steamboat landing, and a bunch of weeping willows.
St. Francisville, high atop the bluff overlooking the site of Bayou Sara, beckoned survivors, and up the hill they came, merchants and families, businesses, even some houses. The 19th-century Bayou Sara residents salvaged what they could of damaged homes and stores, and moved on up the hill to rebuild their lives and re-establish their businesses safe from the floodwaters.
One charming little structure that travelled from Bayou Sara up the hill to safety in St. Francisville is called Miss Lise’s Cottage, comfortably resettled across Prosperity Street from the West Feliciana Parish courthouse in 1890. It was a simple Creole cottage of two rooms, roughly 16’ by 16’, each opening to the outside. The rooms were divided by a solid wall; to go from one to the other entailed a trip outside along the front porch.
The cottage was moved up for Miss Lise, the first “telephone girl” whose last name seems lost to history, and the early switchboard was on the second floor of the 1905 bank building just across Royal Street from her domicile. Until recently, Miss Lise’s Cottage functioned as an attorney’s office. Now it’s the weekend getaway for a gifted career architect/educator and a frustrated designer whose talents complement each other to a remarkable degree in a perfect example of how adaptable these historic little cottages can be in the right hands.
The exterior frontal view retains the traditional Creole cottage character, its siding soft grey with contrasting shades on columns, shutters, entrance doors and trim; the roof is corrugated galvanized steel. But oh, that unexpected interior-- all black and white and simply stunning. With renovations and additions meticulously envisioned and executed by homeowners James Kilbourne Dart and David Anthony Parker II over the past several years, Miss Lise’s Cottage will add the WOW factor to the 2018 Audubon Pilgrimage tour of historic homes in the St. Francisville area. The pilgrimage is sponsored by the West Feliciana Historical Society, for which Jim Dart’s mother Elisabeth Kilbourne Dart, gifted writer and parish historian, served as the longtime leader.
Stark white walls and ebonized flooring decorated with black Argentine cowhides set off a thoughtfully curated collection of modern art, and the few antique pieces are the crème de la crème of family treasures. New York meets Creole modern, they call it, and the balance works perfectly, a striking juxtaposition of antique and contemporary furnishings and original artworks.
With their complementing creative talents and sensibilities, the partners have turned Miss Lise’s Cottage into a stunning example of comfortable contrasts, its starkly simple elegance embracing 19th-century oil paintings and family antiques from great-great-great-grandparents as warmly as naked Chinese artists and Sumatran loincloths in a carefully curated collection of artworks, all in an unassuming little cottage that climbed the hill into St. Francisville to escape Mississippi River floodwaters.
And now that St. Francisville has taken the place of Bayou Sara as the center of commerce for the area, the town showcases its assortment of unique little shops and puts the sizzle back into summertime shopping with the nighttime extravaganza called Polos and Pearls. From 5 to 9 on Saturday, August 19, the event features extended hours in downtown shops, food, music and trolley transportation for an easy hop on-hop off trip from one store to another.
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, 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 (Oakley’s main house is temporarily closed for lead abatement, but the wonderful visitor center/museum remains accessible).
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).