Audubon Pilgrimage Heralds Spring in St. Francisville, LA
By Anne Butler
The forty-sixth annual Audubon Pilgrimage March 17, 18 and 19, 2017, 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 46 years of experience under their belt, society members put on one of the South’s most professional and enjoyable pilgrimage presentations. This year’s featured homes include Wyoming Plantation, St. Clare House, Hillcroft and Wildwood, plus a welcome new emphasis on birds.
Audubon arrived at the Mississippi River port of Bayou Sara by steamboat in June of 1821 and walked up the hill into St. Francisville, where he was to meet Eliza Pirrie and her mother at nearby Wyoming Plantation for a brief rest and repast before journeying to Oakley. Besides its Audubon connections, Wyoming also had enormous relevance in the social and political life of the St. Francisville area. Begun in the early 1800s, the plantation would be the home of Louisiana’s last antebellum governor. The original home burned, and by the 1920s the property belonged to Sam Vinci, who had emigrated from Italy as a 17-year-old with big dreams. The extensive Wyoming property was purchased in the 1980s/90s by Sam’s granddaughter, the late Elaine Vinci, and her husband Leonard Sullivan, who turned the house into a magnificent but livable showplace filled with fine 19th-century furnishings by such famous makers as Prudent Mallard and Alexander Roux.
By the time of Audubon’s arrival, the Bayou Sara area had endured years of cyclical flooding by the Mississippi River, and many of the residents deserted the little port city for the safety of St. Francisville’s high ground, where Catholic monks from across the river had long come to bury their dead. It was right after the disastrous 1912 flood that tug captain James Aubic moved his family up the hill and had a house built behind Our Lady Of Mount Carmel Catholic Church by his brother-in-law, carpenter George Baier, no doubt using some salvaged building materials. Recently beautifully restored, shaded by ancient live oaks and century-old camellias, this is now owned by the church as the comfortable home of the Catholic priest, Father Cary Bani. He has named the elegantly simple home St. Clare for one of Francis of Assisi’s devotees, in keeping with the patron saint of the town itself and the church devoted to Our Lady.
Across from the Catholic Church is regal Hillcroft, reigning over the western end of Royal Street from its landscaped hilltop setting and crowned by a rare widow’s walk overlooking the Mississippi River. Of neo-classical colonial revival design with columned entrance portico and rear double galleries, the house is one of St. Francisville’s largest, but was built for Judge Samuel McCutcheon Lawrason for a mere $5000 beginning in 1903 on what had been a cow lot and fruit orchard. In 1925 Hillcroft was purchased by a relative and namesake of the judge, sugar chemist Samuel Lawrason Butler, whose granddaughter Julie and husband Mitch Brashier have sensitively adapted the historic home to an active lifestyle including yet another Sam, their young son.
Wildwood and its preservation-minded occupants have been integral parts of the Audubon Pilgrimage since its inception. The house was on the very first pilgrimage in 1972, and two generations of owners have served as pilgrimage chairwomen in different years (1975 and 2001) as well as being involved in every aspect of the annual tours every single year. Once a profitable cotton plantation, in 1915 Wildwood was purchased by Albert Lee Soule, president of the Soule Commercial College in New Orleans, as a weekend retreat from the city. Specifications for the 7,000-square-foot three-story farmhouse, designed by his architect brother to feature such innovations as inside bathrooms, closets and intercoms, called for assuring “all work done or materials furnished shall be first class in every respect.” In 1958 the property was purchased and revitalized by Conrad P. and Frances McVea, educators and dedicated preservationists, and now Wildwood is home to the next generation: Tom McVea, former state representative, farmer and cattleman, inveterate collector of vintage wood that somehow always comes in handy when restoring an old place, and his wife Toni.
Other features of the 2017 Audubon Pilgrimage include Afton Villa Gardens, Rosedown and Audubon 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. 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.
This year’s pilgrimage has a new and welcomed focus on Audubon’s birds, for he painted 32 at what is now the Audubon State Historic Site, over 60 in the Felicianas, and more in Louisiana than in any other state. Audubon Market Hall hosts an exhibit of Audubon prints daily and Friday evening, featuring those birds rendered across West Feliciana in such locales as Beechwoods and Beech Grove Plantations, along Bayou Sara, in the Sleepy Hollow woods and the Tunica Swamp. Also on exhibit will be Audubon-inspired paintings by talented local artist Patsy Dreher and middle school art students. Of great interest will be morning presentations at Audubon State Historic Site featuring three widely respected local ornithologists guiding nature walks and giving bird talks on grounds trod by Audubon himself in 1821: Friday 9:30 to 10:30 or 11 a.m. featuring wildlife/landscape artist Murrell Butler; Saturday 9:30 to 11 a.m. featuring author/photographer C.C. Lockwood; and Sunday 9:30 to 11 a.m. with Dr. Tom Tully, LSU vet school avian specialist.
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, 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 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.
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 (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.westfeliciana.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).