Though New Orleans is steeped in historical beauty, a refreshing step back in time to a place in the country is sometimes helpful to soothe the psyche. Such a place is only a couple of hours away.
Historically significant as the capital for the Free and Independent Republic of West Florida for the 97-day life of that country, St. Francisville hosts 140 structures in the National Register of Historic Places. This, in the small community of only 1,740 people, some 32 miles north of Baton Rouge on the East Bank. The old ferry at New Roads has been replaced by a stunning suspension bridge, giving ease of access from the west.
If you have a bent for historical homes, gorgeous gardens, and friendly folks, then the annual Audubon Pilgrimage is an event worthy of your attention. In March each year, the tiny community opens its homes and its heart for all to see.
Most notable among the early residents was John James Audubon, who painted 32 pictures, later to become the basis of “Birds of America,” while residing at Oakley House, the centerpiece of a large cotton plantation. The latter, now operated by the state parks system, seems unchanged since the time the artist worked here.
Surprisingly, many of the old homes are still just that — actual homes, occupied by the current generation of the families that settled and built this beautiful town. Each year for the Audubon Tour, a handful of private homes are opened to the public. The abundance of these homes is indicated by the showings of the homes in 10-year rotation, thus affording the homeowners a nice pause between open houses.
Amazing is the degree of preservation of these places where the original furnishings are still in place, and in many cases still in use. Often the addition of modern conveniences, such as air conditioning, has been concealed or made less obtrusive, so as to maintain the authenticity of the setting.
Of the seven major plantations that comprise the geographic bulk of the community, two are operated by the state parks system. Some operate as bed & breakfasts, and yet others as private homes. The town has a historical district that includes a museum and visitors’ center, and two ancient churches that round out the package.
Gardeners will find botanical bounty at every turn. The city is alive with plants and flowers, and in the spring, the proliferation of azaleas is overwhelming. But distinct from all others, the Afton Villa Gardens reigns magnificent. A half-mile of overhanging oaks laden with Spanish moss cover the entry path, which is lined on both sides by azaleas and camellias. Although the mansion burned in 1963 and was not replaced, the 250-acre premises are dotted with gardens of differing themes and designs, accented with cobbled paths and Italian statuary.
The three-day span of the Audubon Pilgrimage allows a casual pace for a complete tour of all sites. Friday night is highlighted by a wine and cheese event. Saturday evening, The Soiree’ offers dining under the stars in the historical district, capped off with a lively street dance.
To spend a day or more of your life in this quaint locale is an enjoyable allocation of one’s tenure. The dates for the 2012 Audubon Pilgrimage are March 16, 17 and 18. Don’t forget your camera.
Ned Cheever lives in Texas, but his heart belongs to New Orleans. The frequent visitor writes essays for NolaVie. Read his blog at nedcheever.com.