St. Francisville Salutes Dead Sailors and Writers With Plenty of Spirit(s)
By Anne Butler
Literati leavened with “bourbon strolls” and graveyard dinners under the live oaks…dead bodies sent off with vintage dancing and period tunes…weekly peeks at 19th-century medical practices at home and on the battlefield that most often ended in the cemetery as well, plus those wild and wacky Zouaves, the Civil War’s most colorful troops. The staid and stately live oaks must be in a state of shock, but visitors to St. Francisville in June are promised a heck of a good time.
“Come for the literature. Stay for the feast,” promises the fourth annual Walker Percy Weekend June 2-4 with activities scattered throughout St. Francisville’s picturesque National Register-listed downtown. Called “intellectually serious but broadly accessible,” the weekend is filled with panel discussions and entertaining presentations by Percy scholars, readings, photo exhibit, and eat-drink-be-merry social and culinary events including summer-weight bourbon cocktails and crawfish boiled by those famous Hot Tails chefs.
Participants register Friday, June 2, at The Conundrum Books & Puzzles on Ferdinand St. from 3 to 5:30, then mosey on down to beautiful oak-shaded Grace Episcopal for what is called “Lost in the Churchyard, an elegantly provisioned reception and cocktail party.” Saturday’s presentations include “Walker Percy and the Benedict Option: Confronting the Culture of Death,” “Walker Percy and the Burden of History,” “The Devil Went Down to Georgia: Flannery O’Connor and the Religion of Me, Myself and I,” “Walker Percy’s Blues: Suffering and Self-Discovery in Love in the Ruins,” and “Memoirs of a Mississippi Boy.” Those who survive the presentations may revive themselves from 5:30 to 7:30 on the Progressive Front Porch Tour and Bourbon Tasting, followed by the Crawfish and Craft Beer Celebration with live music and dancing. Added this year is a Bourbon Tasting Tent with premium bourbons to sample.
What, you may ask, does the late acclaimed Covington author Walker Percy have to do with West Feliciana Parish? Plenty, having used some iconic sites including the state pen at Angola and the River Bend nuclear plant in his famous works, as well as a somewhat fictionalized version of the whole parish. Not to mention all the family connections, because the St. Francisville area has had a Percy under practically every bush---sheriffs, farmers, cattlemen, even one cattlewoman who famously drove a herd of steers to LSU in Baton Rouge to pay her tuition during the Great Depression---ever since the very first Percy arrived in West Feliciana while it was still part of Spanish West Florida, established the family foothold and then drowned himself in a fit of despondency in Percy Creek, foreshadowing the sad propensity toward suicide that seemed to run through the generations of the author’s family.
And the progressive bourbon-tastings on front galleries throughout downtown St. Francisville pay tribute to Percy’s memorable essay called “Bourbon, Neat.” As he explored in his works the search for meaning in an increasingly materialistic society, Percy applauded the application of a few shots of bourbon daily to “warm the heart, to reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, to cut the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons.” What, he wondered, “if a man comes home from work every day at 5:30 to the exurbs…and there is the grass growing and the little family looking not quite at him but just past the side of his head, and there’s Cronkite on the tube and the smell of pot roast in the living room, and inside the house and outside in the pretty exurb has settled the noxious particles and the sadness of the old dying Western world, and him thinking: ‘Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?’” Hoist the bottle.
|by Darrell Chitty|
The following weekend, June 9 and 10th, an event is celebrated that a 1937 article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune called “one of the strangest born of the War Between the States, when fighting men could battle to the death and yet know chivalry, when war had not become the cold-blooded butchery of today.” And indeed, the twentieth anniversary celebration of The Day the War Stopped is a Civil War re-enactment like no other, for instead of blazing guns and battles, this is a tribute to the universality of the Masonic brotherhood that could take precedence over anything happening in the outside world.
In June of 1863, as the siege of Port Hudson pitted 30,000 Union troops against 6,800 weary Confederates as they fought over the all-important control of traffic on the Mississippi River, a shot rang out in the captain’s stateroom of the USS Albatross, patrolling off the coast of Bayou Sara/St. Francisville. The vessel’s commander, John Elliot Hart of Schenectady, New York, lay mortally wounded on the floor.
Attempts to find a metallic coffin the ship the body home were unsuccessful, so the ship’s surgeon, a Mason, went ashore in hopes of arranging burial on land; Commander Hart, a Union naval officer, was also a Mason, and in St. Francisville was the second oldest Masonic lodge in the state, its senior warden a Confederate cavalry officer fortuitously at home on furlough.
And so the war was stopped, if only for a brief mournful moment, as Masons in blue and gray joined the Episcopal rector in burial services. Today this rare moment, a compassionate ceasefire in the midst of a bloody conflict, has been re-created every year for two decades, with re-enactors in Union and Confederate garb, a few of them actual descendants of original participants and others from Hart’s New York lodge.
This year’s Day the War Stopped also marks the bicentennial of St. Francisville’s Feliciana Lodge #31 F&AM, so on Friday evening, June 9, there will be graveside histories in the hauntingly beautiful cemetery surrounding Grace Episcopal Church where Hart rests in peace, followed by a special historical presentation at the Masonic Lodge just across Ferdinand St. On Saturday, June 10, the lodge serves lunch from 11:30 to 12:30, preceded at 10:30 a.m. by a concert of vintage music at Grace Church’s parish hall and followed by vintage dancing in the same location. A presentation saluting the Masonic Lodge bicentennial takes place 12:30 to 1:30, then a heart-touching little play about Hart’s homelife is followed by the re-enactment of his burial from 1:30 to 2:30. Further celebration of the lodge bicentennial takes place from 6 to 11 p.m. at the Austin Daniel home on Joe Daniel Road in Elm Park, with music by the Delta Drifters, crawfish and barbeque, plus drinks; reservations for the After Party are required, and tickets to this event are $25, but all the other activities are free. For information, see www.daythewarstopped.com online or Facebook The Day The War Stopped.
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.
The main house at Oakley is temporarily closed for lead abatement, but the visitor center and grounds remain accessible and planned programs continue, in June with special weekend focus on the plantation apothecary (early medical practices with many medicines coming from the herb garden), Civil War medical practices and surgery, an exploration of historical recreation for Take A Kid Fishing day, and a look at some of the Civil War’s most colorful units, the LA Zouaves. For information, telephone 225-635-3739.
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).