St. Francisville, Louisiana: Plantation Homes, Spanish Moss and Southern Hospitality
I’m a Yankee girl, born and raised in the Upper Midwest. Images of the Deep South were not relevant to my girlhood mind. I thought about plantation living and the Civil War only when somebody put the concepts directly before me.
There was one Thanksgiving break, in fact, when my mother rented the movie version of Gone With the Wind. She plopped the two-tape video on the kitchen counter, announcing that we (as in she and I) would be watching it after the holiday meal while my dad and brother occupied themselves with football games.
I’m pretty sure I groaned. I probably even rolled my eyes. I was, after all, in middle school. And yet, despite my very own adolescent theatrics, I got all swept up in the drama of Scarlett O’Hara. So much so, that when I was in college, I actually choose, of my own free will, to read the book in my sparse down time.
But that was (gasp!) fifteen years ago, and truth be told, outside of that brief foray into the land of Tara as a coed, I’ve put about as much thought into plantation living during my adult years as I did during my childhood.
However, when the opportunity arose for me to take a road trip through rural Louisiana touring plantation homes, I paused only briefly before getting on board. And it wasn’t long, once I’d arrived, until I was all caught up in dreams of belles and balls.
Get your wheels on
I headed to West Feliciana Parish and the town of St. Francisville, which is about half an hour north of Baton Rouge. I made my way there from New Orleans, however, and spent about two hours in the car.
Frankly, there’s just no way around renting a car if you want to tour the plantation homes of St. Francisville. By their very definition, plantation homes are surrounded by acres and acres of land, which necessitate the wheels.
But the scenery is pretty — all lush and alive — and for the passenger, it’s almost hypnotic to simply stare out the car window. You quickly loose all sense of time in the passing green.
Pick up any sort of tourism material about St. Francisville and you’re likely to encounter the word “antebellum.” It’s liberally used and tagged to just about everything from homes to gardens to oak trees.
But this Yankee chic had never seen the word before. A check of the dictionary confirmed what I suspected: “Antebellum” describes something that existed before a war, particularly the American Civil War.
The history of St. Francisville and its surrounding area, however, stretches back even further than slavery. This part of Louisiana was controlled by the Spanish, not the French. This territory, therefore, was not included in the Louisiana Purchase.
In order to populate the area, the Spanish crown gave away massive land grants. British settlers took advantage of those deals and established St. Francisville. To this day, the town retains an aura of the English countryside. Manicured gardens are kept and prized. In fact, the town hosts a “garden symposium” each October.
Plus, the local Episcopal congregation is still an active force in town. The historic Grace Church also maintains a large cemetery filled with lichen-covered headstones and broad-trunked trees.
Despite its English roots, St. Francisville oozes Southern charm. One of the first things you’ll notice as your car pulls into town is the Spanish Moss. It drips from nearly every tree and shrub around.
If you’ve never seen it before, which as a Yankee girl I hadn’t outside of movies, the moss is almost eerie. It’s harmless, however, to humans and trees alike. And the longer I spent in St. Francisville, the more I stared to believe that it was the moss, with its dingy gray color, that was responsible for the hush in the air. It seemed to filter the sun’s brightest rays and everything in its presence felt soft and shadowed.
In keeping with the classic notion of Southern hospitality, hardly any time had passed before a local youngster called me ma’am.
“Ma’am?!” I jumped when I heard the word. “Did you just call me ma’am?” I was only 35! Where I came from, that didn’t qualify as ma’am.
“I’m not old enough to be called ma’am,” I instructed, in what I thought was a playful tone.
“I’m just trying to do as my mama said,” he stammered. “She’d be real unhappy if I wasn’t polite.”
I backed off. He hadn’t meant the word as an insult, and as I saw him fluster and blush I realized that I had just insulted him by insinuating that his word choice had offended me. Apparently, I needed to learn some Southern charm.
And of course, the surrounding plantation estates also contribute to the southern-ness of St. Francisville. One of the plantation homes I visited in the area was Oakley House. It was not what I expected.
I expected white columns and wide verandas, and while the main home did deliver in both respects, it did not fit my Gone With the Wind stereotype. Instead, the home’s architecture has a Caribbean vibe, stemming from the original owner’s years spent living in the West Indies.
Architecture isn’t the only thing that separates Oakley House from other plantation homes. It also has the distinction of being a state park. This is because John James Audubon, the founding father of modern bird watching, spent time living and working on the plantation.
Audubon was hired as a tutor for one of the family’s daughters, but when he wasn’t schooling the girl in letters, he was tromping through the nearby woods spotting and drawing birds. He finished roughly 80 paintings while living here.
Even though he only spent a small amount of time at Oakley House, Audubon’s spirit lingers. The state park that includes the plantation is officially called the Audubon State Historic Site.
And Gus, an overly-friendly turkey, greets tourists to the plantation home. So eager to make your acquaintance is he that he’s liable to chase you all the way to the bathroom door.
Plus, each March, St. Francisville hosts the Audubon Pilgrimage, an event that includes plantation and garden tours, wine tastings and live music. There is also a hummingbird festival each July.
But I did, finally, find my Tara at the Rosedown Plantation. After a short and winding walk down a flourishing garden path, I found myself standing at the base of the grand front entrance to the main home.
The massive, knotted, bulky trunks of arching oaks planted over a hundred years ago swept me back to the era of Southern belles, and for a moment, just a moment, I wished that I were one.
Plantation homes in the vicinity of St. Francisville:
[Many of these plantation homes are closed to tourists on major holidays. If touring over a holiday, call ahead.]
Make sure you keep your ears open when climbing the grand staircase inside the plantation home. You won’t hear nary a squeak or creek even though it’s well over a hundred years old.
Secondly, the home is famous for one of its servants and not for its owners. James Audubon served as a tutor in this house. While living here, he completed about 80 of his bird sketches. Because of this, the Oakley House is part of the Louisiana State Park system and is known as the Audubon State Historic Site.
Butler Greenwood Plantation
The surrounding fields are still in use, although greatly reduced in acreage. Nearby ancient live oaks lend the grounds an air of calm and charm frequently sought by brides.
The Myrtles Plantation
Stay in town:
St. Francisville doesn’t boast a quaint central plaza with straight grid streets. Its roads are winding and leafy and its businesses are pretty scattered. Still, traffic is light and it’s a pleasant place to be. If you want to stay in town, here are some options.
3-V Tourist Court
You can practically hop to the Magnolia, a happening social hot spot. And in the morning, you’ll wake to the sound of crunching gravel. The 3-V shares a parking lot with the hottest coffee shop in town.
St. Francisville Inn
Stay out of town:
If you’re looking for a place to park your RV, head for the Green Acres Campground.
If you want to stay in a hotel with a recognizable name, there is a Best Western. The St. Francisville version, however, doesn’t resemble the typical airport or highway variety. It sits on sprawling grounds and a lake. 225-635-3821
If you want your stay to include a round of golf, check into a room at The Bluffs Country Club.
If you want the plantation tour theme to carry over into your night’s stay, there are several B & B options hosted on plantation grounds.
Butler Greenwood Plantation Bed and Breakfast
Greenwood Plantation Bed and Breakfast
Cottage Plantation Bed and Breakfast
For More Information
St. Francisville is located in West Feliciana Parish. The tourist commission’s web site is comprehensive and well-maintained. It lists hotels, restaurants, attractions and more. www.stfrancisville.us
St. Francisville may be a quiet, country town, but it knows how to throw a party. Its annual calendar is littered with all types of festivals. There are events for gardeners, hummingbird enthusiasts and musicians. The St. Francisville Festivals web site provides all sorts of details. www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com
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