My grandparents moved here in the mid-'20s. My uncle was two and my mother was born a couple of years later. My grandfather had a general store, in which his son became a partner when he was grown.
Here are my mother and my uncle on the porch of their playhouse with two little friends.
My parents were living in St. Francisville when I was born. I was much coddled, as there were no other children, grandchildren, or nieces and nephews when I came along. My brother was born a year and a half later, probably the first thing I remember.
It's strange to think I may never go back, and not to stay for any period of time unless I'm buried there. All things pass away. It's almost certain I'll never ride the ferryboat across the Mississippi in St. Francisville again. Something that was so much a feature of our lives will be replaced by a bridge within a year.
St. Francisville was founded in 1809. It is 24 miles north of Baton Rouge, on a narrow ridge running perpendicular from La. Hy 61 down to the Mississippi river. Called the town that is two miles long and two yards wide, as the houses on both sides of the main street back up to deep long hollows. This bluff over the river was granted to a group of Spanish Capuchins who established a burial ground and monastery there sometime in the mid 1770s.
But St. Francisville was a secondary town. The important place was Bayou Sara, founded in 1790, which grew into the most important port between New Orleans and Natchez in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In the heyday of cotton, 1825 to 1860, both towns flourished, with St. Francisville’s safety from flooding making it a market town. Several houses in St. Francisville were moved there from Bayou Sara over the years, and after Admiral Porter burnt Bayou Sara during the Civil War, most of the rest of the inhabitants moved to St. Francisville. Bayou Sara remained commercially important until the great flood of 1927.
Nothing remains of the thriving town in those two pictures.
The second picture above is taken from the river end looking up towards St. Francisville. The hill on the left is Catholic Hill, the highest point in town. Atop it sets the church where Bixa was baptized, a church constructed from plans drawn by General P.G.T. Beauregard.
Speaking of churches, continuing on into town will bring you to Grace Episcopal Church and its dreamy, lush cemetery.
The town itself is an easy stroll down Ferdinand Street (aka La. Hwy 10), with a loop through Royal Street. It has to be one of the prettiest towns in the United States, with picturesque old houses, picket fences, gardens, and rampant greenery.
Many things in town and in the parish (county in the rest of the US) are named "Audubon", to celebrate John James Audubon. He came to Oakley plantation in 1821 to tutor the daughter of the household, and completed or began at least twenty-three of his famous Birds in America series there.
Much of this preservation of the history and promoting of the beauty of the town is relatively recent. For much of my life, St. Francisville was just another little southern town, with the de rigueur brick courthouse and its Confederate soldier statue , country people shopping on Saturdays, and a segregated movie theater.
The photo below was taken the year before I was born. The photographer was standing on Commerce Street looking towards Ferdinand Street -- the main street. A right turn would take you to the river. The 3-V Cafe is long gone. Across the street from it, on the far left, is where one caught the Greyhound bus.
One of the main draws of the area is the abundance of ante-bellum houses built "when cotton was king".
Tours of several of them are available. A walk around town is a garden tour in itself, but the Afton Villa Gardens are worth seeing. This was a family home when it burnt in 1963, supposedly exactly 100 years after it was spared by Union troops who passsed it by, thinking the the entrance was to a cemetery.
Bixa, what a wonderful post about hometown. I was really taken by the area and your narrative was great. We have a friend that was born and raised in Baton Rouge. He now lives in New Orleans. We visited New Orleans a couple of times and have always said we would like to spend more time in Louisiana to expore the remainder of the state. I also have relatives that live in Lake Charles. Haven't seen them in ages but hopefully one of these days we will make the trip.
When you're chewing on life's gristle[br]Don't grumble, give a whistle[br]And this'll help things turn out for the best...[br]And...always look on the bright side of life...[br]Always look on the light side of life.[br]Monty Python's Life of Brian[br]
Bixa, this is a fascinating post about your hometown and it's history. You have some remarkable photos both of your family and of the area. I love your family home and you must have been very sad to see it sold. Later you say that you 'may never go back'. Why is this? (although I may have answered my own question, I have not been back to my childhood home in twenty-five years...too many powerful memories.) I was moved by video of 'The Day that the War Stopped', the burial of the Northern soldier who wanted a masonic burial and was given this in a Confederate town in the midst of the Civil War. It reminds me of stories of WW1 and WW2, when both sides ceased fire for Christmas.
I enjoyed the old family photos of your grandfather's store, your mother and uncle and you and your brothers. It is sobering to think that Bayou Saro, once so vital, no longer exists. St. Francisville is gently beautiful. I love the photos of the old southern homes and gardens. Once, I went to New Orleans and took a day trip, wandering around the countryside, and stopped to visit one or two, fascinated by the Spanish moss, by the lost grandeur. They are so evocative of an age gone by.
Traveler, it's a varied and interesting state. I hope you have the opportunity one day to see more of it. Go in May or October for the nicest weather.
Jazz, I may not be back because of logistics. My family is all over the place. My mother lives in Oklahoma, and taking care of a house that we only used for the occasional gathering was a big hassle. Although I think the town is beautiful, I have no desire to live there, nor does anyone else in the family.
I should have put this disclaimer at the beginning, but most of the pictures aren't mine. All of the text is mine, though. Many of my photos are still in the US, so I relied heavily on the web to put this together. Of course the family ones belong to me, except for the one of the old store, which is the real estate picture. (You can see where the store name was obscured by the listing broker.) For a good shot of the two store buildings, go to #21 here and freeze the video the second it starts playing.
That is a great presentation of your hometown, Bixa.
One of the reasons that I could never do the same thing is that my hometown was wiped off the face of the earth by Hurricane Camille in 1968, and then Hurricane Katrina came and removed what had been rebuilt in 2005. (My family moved away in 1967.)
Even though there used to be magnificent antebellum mansions all along the Mississippi coast like in St. Francisville, the actual history of my own hometown is more chaotic, to the extent that the people of the area do not even consider themselves to be part of the Deep South and have no affinities at all with the rest of the state.
Your hometown was so beautiful, too, with the stately mansions proudly facing the Gulf. However, I believe you turned the phrase "one picture is worth a thousand words" on its head when you posted your nostalgic prose poem to your home place.
I don't know how many people will want to watch this whole video, but it really gives the feeling of riding the ferry boat. The visuals are quite good (no audio), and the sky is beautiful. I suggest double-clicking & watching it on youtube:
While admiring the genteel southern charm of St. Francisville, one has also to remember that the impressive plantations were built on and sustained by slavery. It is rather horribly fitting that a major institution in West Feliciana Parish -- Angola Penitentiary -- is built on land from a massive former plantation.
For a prison known for human rights abuses and the setting for "Dead Man Walking", Angola has several surprising cultural outlets run for and by the inmates.
I always thought Angola was a very cynical name for a prison where the majority of inmates were African-American. Even worse for a plantation, and indeed if google is to be trusted, the owner named his plantation for the region of Africa that supplied most of his slave labour.
Was this town founded by English-speaking people? Today. the 15th of August (L'Assomption) is the Acadian national day, from New Brunswick to Louisiana.
Thank you, LaGatta and everyone for the much-appreciated compliments.
St. Francisville is indeed a very Anglo town, something displayed by the names of the plantation owners.
My grandmother came from across the river in New Roads, and she said that when she was a girl they called St. Francisville and the Felicianas "England" and the New Roads' side of the river "France".
The place definitely has its southern gothic side, right up to the present day. A fascinating example is that of Anne Butler Hamilton, owner of Butler Greenwood Plantation. She co-authored two books (1992 & 1995) with her then-husband C. Murray Henderson, warden of Angola.
.... C. Murray Henderson ... was later sentenced to 50 years in prison for the 1997 attempted murder of his wife, writer Anne Butler, on her front porch in St. Francisville.
Henderson pleaded for clemency in 2004, during a pardon board hearing in Cottonport.
"I have a horror of dying in prison," the 83-year-old Henderson told the board.
Henderson died a month later in state custody, before the pardon board had decided whether to grant him medical parole, which would have allowed him a transfer to a nursing home.
Before he shot his wife five times a week after they had separated, shouting, "Space? You wanted space?" while firing a .38-caliber gun, according to Butler's accounts, the couple collaborated on books about the history of Angola with her, including "Angola: A Half Century of Rage & Reform."
I have no idea how my biological father's family arrived in more or less the same area of the Deep South. The family was Swiss and were among the founding fathers of New Glarus, Wisconsin. Yet my father was born in Springfield, Illinois. I know that he went to high school in Gulfport, Missippippi and at least started university at Loyola University in New Orleans, but my information stops there.