By Colin Woodward
A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of returning to St. Francisville, Louisiana, after a ten-year absence. The town (which I will abbreviate as SF) is about 30 minutes north of Baton Rouge. And it is as charming as Baton Rouge is not. St. Francisville the epitome of the quaint southern community. When I had been there before, it was only for a few hours at time. Never for three days. Having seen it again, it’s better than I remember it.
Waiting for Its Closeup
St. Francisville is something out of a movie. Maybe a story about a hardworking southern lawyer, a la To Kill a Mocking Bird. Someone could also film a great vampire movie there. The Grace Episcopal Church sits on breathtaking grounds, surrounded by a Gothic cemetery that is worthy of Faulkner. I’m surprised a great southern writer hasn’t claimed St. Francisville as his own. Should the town take bids for a writer in residence, I would gladly accept the post. The place needs a chronicler.
The town is as dripping with history as it is Spanish Moss. The Mississippi River is not far from the center of town. And the Mississippi probably has had as much as anything to do with how its history developed. The town is also not far from Port Hudson, the last major stronghold the Confederates held on the Mississippi. The Confederates at Port Hudson surrendered a few days after the Rebellion lost Vicksburg. The loss of the Mississippi for the Confederacy sent the war into a second stage that would end at Appomattox Court House.
The Republic of West Florida
Like so many parts of our country, the town has a colonial heritage. SF was the capital of the short-lived Republic of West Florida that broke away from its Spanish rulers. This independent country–consisting of none of the territory that is now the state of Florida–lasted for little more than two months in 1810, not long before Louisiana became a state. The republic’s flag was blue with a white star. Some people still fly the flag in front of their homes.
SF was one of the wealthiest towns in the South before the Civil War. Cotton flowed up and down the river in the antebellum period, and St. Francisville became one of the pistons in the economic engine that was American slavery. The place is not as well-known as Natchez, Mississippi, which had a large number of antebellum millionaires and had the distinction of being the wealthiest place, per capita, in the prewar era.
SF wasn’t shabby either. Planters grew cotton and sugar and got filthy rich. Unlike Natchez, though, SF has not seen the kind of sprawl or racial problems that characterize much of the New South. If you’re interested in reading about modern day Natchez, I would point you to Tony Horwitz’s classic work of journalism-history Confederates in the Attic. SF wasn’t mentioned in his tour of the South. But someone could write a very interesting book about.
Grace Episcopal Church
St. Francisville is quiet. There’s not a lot “to do”–at least in contrast to a place like New Orleans, which is about two hours to the south. SF a place you could take a grandparent or history nerd looking for a good time. It’s also a geographic marker, serving as the place where northern Louisiana becomes southern Louisiana. North Louisiana is a Protestant and evangelical and non-denominational stronghold. The southern part of the state belongs to the Catholics–or at least in theory. SF is of course named after St. Francis of Assisi, who supposedly spoke to birds. There’s a Catholic Church on a hill as you head toward Bayou Sara. But Grace Episcopal feels more like a Catholic church.
Southern Louisiana not only has a different religious demographic from the northern part, it looks different. You won’t see many live oaks until you hit SF along highway 61. Live oaks are really what define the landscape of the Deep South. And not all live oaks have Spanish Moss hanging from them. SF does, and ambling through the town is like walking through some great southern novel.
The town has plenty of plantation homes to visit. I was able to see one last week, Rosedown, which was once owned by the Turnbull family, which lived in the house until the latter half of the 20th century. The Turnbulls were wealthy before the Civil War. Immensely so. The family owned 450 slaves, and the master of the house had four plantations. He was such a good businessman that he ran four plantations in addition to the ones he owned. Unfortunately, a hard rain storm kept me from seeing the gardens surrounding the house. Maybe next time.
The war destroyed the master class, but not the plantations. The Turnbulls endured after the war, but the house was saved not by cotton but petroleum. The Turnbulls married into Texas oil money around the time of the First World War. And they were able to put gobs of money into restoring the house after WWII. Eight million dollars, if memory serves. Our tour guide at Rosedown said 90% of the furniture in the house was original. In contrast, Lakeport plantation in Arkansas has no original furniture (it’s resplendent all the same, though).
I will never forget the heat or humidity of southern Louisiana. But I guess I had forgotten just how wet it could feel even on cooler days. For one of the days in SF, it rained for eight hours straight. It made the Spanish Moss drip even more. The air conditioner had trouble keeping our room cool and dry. You begin to mold. Welcome to the subtropics. Drinking helps.
A Ghost to Most
But, you don’t go to southern Louisiana for comfort. You go there for atmosphere. You go there because you can feel like you’re in a different country, where things feel naked and wild. Barely civilized. In late summer, everything is green and wet. The vines and kudzu want to strangle trees and houses. Things are verdant, pregnant, oversized.
In south Louisiana, things feel heightened–the sun, the rain storms. The night feels darker somehow, too. I couldn’t help feel a little scared as I walked through the center of town late at night. Many houses had no lights on at all. By the Episcopal cemetery, I could hardly see the sidewalk as I stepped under the low-hanging oaks.
Were I a ghost, I’d live in St. Francisville. For sure.
St. Francisville vs. Baton Rouge
While I was in Louisiana, I also managed to drive down to Baton Rouge. I lived there for eight years, but I was glad to leave. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling stressed out again. Every living thing drives everywhere in Baton Rouge, with the possible exception of a few misanthropic graduate students who can’t afford cars. The interstate is used as a crosstown thoroughfare. And the area around LSU is even more congested than I remember. Good food there, though. I gorged myself on Cane’s chicken. Twice in two days.
It was good to get back to St. Francisville. It is as beautiful as Baton Rouge is ugly. It’s more southern than the South, which too often wants to be Atlanta or Houston rather than Charleston or Savannah. SF makes you want to live on a diet of pecan pie and Tennessee whiskey and write stories about a mentally ill Confederate colonel who sleeps with the bones of his long dead wives. Or something.
Some southerners–when they wrap themselves in the Confederate flag or embrace the politics of obstructionism–are too tied to what has made their region infamous. They seem to have forgotten that such a thing as charm still exists. I feel like St. Francisville, as charming as it is, deserves more visitors than it gets. But maybe its residents want it that way.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.