By ANNE BUTLER and NORMAN FERACHI- Situated where the rugged Tunica Hills skirt the Mississippi River, St. Francisville began as a part of Spanish West Florida in the early 1800s. The first settlers were adventurous Anglos who rebelled against Spain, established a short-lived independent republic, stopped the Civil War to bury a Union officer, and planted vast acres of indigo, cotton, and cane.
In the 1900s, St. Francisville became the cultural and commercial center of the surrounding plantation country.
Today, overlooking the river from atop a high, narrow ridge "two miles long and two yards wide," it remains the West Feliciana parish seat. Tourists visit its picturesque downtown, a lively Main Street Community and National Register Historic District.
Antebellum plantations and gardens draw tourists year-round, and the unique hilly terrain provides unsurpassed recreational opportunities for hiking, bicycling, birding, hunting, and nature studies.
Ever since John James Audubon painted dozens of birds in West Felicianain 1821, artists, writers, and other visitors have found inspiration in this scenic,unspoiled spot.
In St. Francisville today, moss-draped live oaks overhang roadways and many of the early buildings have been restored in a downtown district that is listed in its entirety in the National Register of Historic Places.
This is also a Main Street community participating in the National Trust program designed to encourage and support the preservation of significant commercial centers that were once the hearts and souls of early communities and the repositories of residents' collective memories. St. Francisville's downtown remains the viable center of life today, its mixture of commercial and residential structures giving it a 24-hour presence, with shops and art galleries, restaurants, town and parish government offices, a museum and tourist information center, bed-and-breakfasts, and beautiful old churches. These establishments stand side by side with beloved historic townhouses and little Victorian cottages dripping with ginger- bread trim, surrounded by well-tended gardens full of blossoming azaleas and camellias. While other strictly commercial downtown districts fold up the sidewalks once the businesses close for the day, here, as dusk falls, downtown is alive with dog-walkers and joggers and strollers conversing with neighbors across picket fences.
No wonder St. Francisville has become a year-round tourist destination. In the surrounding countryside, there are a number of antebellum plantation homes and 19th-century gardens open for tours. The Tunica Hills offer unmatched recreational opportunities, including hiking, bicycling, hunting, and nature studies. The
Louisiana Office of State Parks has exciting plans for treetop interpretive centers and river bluff outlooks, maximizing environmentally safe enjoyment of this incredible area. The rugged terrain of the Tunica Hills is unique in the state, with steep ravines left from the Ice Age harboring flora and fauna found nowhere else in Louisiana. Also unique is the cyclical flooding along this, the only un-leveed stretch of the lower Mississippi River, where Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge preserves the country's largest bald cypress tree and harbors large seasonal populations of migratory water-fowl. Both migratory and resident birdlife remain as plentiful as in the 1820s, when the artist John James Audubon was spell-bound by the richness of the natural bounties: he painted dozens of his famous bird studies while tutoring the daughter of Oakley Plantation, one of several significant properties in the parish now preserved as state historic sites.
The West Feliciana Historical Society for decades has instilled an appreciation for history and spearheaded preservation efforts. In the 1970s, the West Feliciana Historical Society began the Audubon Pilgrimage, a spring tour of historic homes and gardens with docents in authentic, award-winning 1820s costumes. This proved not only a means of sharing important treasures with visitors while raising funds for preservation projects, but also a way of instilling pride and an enduring sense of community in local residents.
The Historical Society also was the catalyst for a separate foundation that works to restore the beautiful brick Julius Freyhan school building and adjacent Temple Sinai as community cultural centers in tribute to the early Jewish immigrants whose mercantile and financial acumen proved vital in this agrarian society's postwar economic recovery.
Other special events throughout the year include festivals paying tribute to birds and glorious gardens, prison rodeos and craft shows, gatherings of regional artists and writers, and even a Civil War reenactment celebrating the universality of a Masonic brotherhood and a moment of civility in the midst of a bloody conflict.
So, yes, Virginia, there is life in Louisiana outside of New Orleans and Cajun Country. Here in English Plantation Country, and in St. Francisville, where the population is still just under 2,000, residents revel in their uniqueness and welcome visitors to share an appreciation of it.