By Kelly Westhoff
I headed to West Feliciana Parish and the town of St. Francisville, which is about half an hour north of Baton Rouge, in my rental car.
There is 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 lose 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 chick 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.
Older than Slavery
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 started 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.
“Yes ma’am,” repeated the youth, his cheeks flushing. Why really, he wasn’t that much younger than me! He was a clean-cut cutie, that’s for sure. But he was also a restaurant manager with a college degree.
“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 flutter 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.
Audubon Slept Here
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.
Audubon State Historic Site
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 near St. Francisville
[Many of these plantation homes are closed to tourists on major holidays. If touring over a holiday, call ahead.]
12501 Highway 10; St. Francisville, LA 70775; 225-635-3332
Open daily 9 am – 5 pm
Today, the Rosedown Plantation home and grounds are part of the Louisiana State Park system.
A park ranger will take you on a tour of the gardens and main house, pointing out significant trees, flowers, statues, and filling you in on the property’s past.
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.
11788 Highway 965; St. Francisville, LA 70775; 225-635-3739
Open daily 9 am – 5 pm
The Oakley House isn’t a typical plantation home. First of all, it lacks the white columns and classic Greek temple look that so many associate with the era.
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.
This plantation has been owned and operated by the same family since it was first constructed in the 1790s. Because of this, it boasts artifacts other area plantation homes can’t offer, like a tour narrated by a family descendant, portraits, clothing, dining ware, and original furniture. Linger in the Victorian parlor and stroll through the extensive, formal gardens.
6838 Highland Road; St. Francisville, LA 70775; 225-655-4475
Open daily for tours in spring and summer 9 am – 5 pm; winter 10 am – 4 pm
Featured in movies and miniseries, the main house of Greenwood Plantation is stately and commanding. It has also been fully restored and decorated in epoch-appropriate furnishings after a fire.
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.
Touting itself as “one of the most haunted homes in America,” you’ll surely want to schedule a stop at The Myrtles Plantation.
The main house is over 200 years old! Plus, if it happens to be a Friday or Saturday, you can opt for the “mystery tour.” There is a full-service restaurant on-site so that you can easily make a night of it.
If you’re a history buff, you’ll want to schedule a stop at Cottage Plantation; the first owner received the land as part of a Spanish land grant in 1795. While the plantation ownership has changed, the acreage has never been split up or sold off, which means the original land grant is still intact. Tour the main house and several original outer structures.
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
No website available
5689 Commence St., St. Francisville, LA 70775; 225-635-5540
Seeking a throwback in time? Reserve one of the tiny cabins at the 3-V. You’ll fall in love with your quarters and might not ever check out. You’ll get a bed, a kitchenette, and a bathroom all within your own four snug, cozy walls.
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
5720 Commerce St.; St. Francisville, LA 70775; 225-635-6502
This bed and breakfast is located inside a resorted, historic home in the center of St. Francisville. The private garden includes plenty of shade and a pool for guest use. The front sitting rooms and front porch are open to the public for cocktails and wine. The buffet breakfast is also open to the public.
9704 Royal St.; St. Francisville, LA 70775; 225-635-6116
If you’re looking for solitude, the Shadetree Inn is a good bet. With only three B & B rooms, it’s guaranteed you won’t be overrun by other tourists. From its hilltop perch, you can pass the afternoon staring at the tree tops sloping into the distance, yet you’re still close enough to town to take a walk and explore.
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
8345 US Highway 61; St. Francisville, LA 70775; 225-635-6312
Looking for privacy? Rent one of the eight cottages scattered about the grounds of the Butler Greenwood Plantation, which is still owned and operated by the original family. Some of the cottages are historic, others are new construction. All are luxurious.
Greenwood Plantation Bed and Breakfast
6838 Highland Road; St. Francisville, LA 70775; 225-655-4475
The rooms at Greenwood Plantation are removed from the main home and its tourist and located instead in newly constructed buildings clustered together with pond views. The breakfast is guaranteed to be hearty.
The Myrtles Plantation Bed and Breakfast
7747 U.S. Highway 61 N.; St. Francisville, LA 70775; 225-635-6277
If you’re brave, perhaps you’ll take a room at The Myrtles Plantation, which claims to be one of America’s most haunted houses. If you do stay the night, you’ll get a full tour of the plantation home and breakfast the next morning.
Cottage Plantation Bed and Breakfast
10528 Cottage Ln.; St. Francisville, LA 70775; 225-635-3674
It’s such a chore to get out of bed and get dressed in order to go and get a cup of coffee. If you take a room at the Cottage, however, the wait staff will bring your morning coffee straight to you. Once you’re fully caffeinated, you can go for dip in the pool.
For More Information
St. Francisville is located in West Feliciana Parish. The tourist commission’s website 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 website provides all sorts of details. www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com