Audubon Pilgrimage March 20, 21 and 22, 2020
The forty-ninth annual Audubon Pilgrimage March 20, 21 and 22, 2020, celebrates a southern spring in St. Francisville, the glorious garden spot of Louisiana’s English Plantation Country. For nearly half a century the sponsoring West Feliciana Historical Society has thrown open the doors of significant historic structures to commemorate artist-naturalist John James Audubon’s 1821 stay as he painted a number of his famous bird studies and tutored the daughter of Oakley Plantation’s Pirrie family, beautiful young Eliza. A year’s worth of planning and preparation precedes each pilgrimage, and with 49 years of experience under their belt, society members put on one of the South’s most professional and enjoyable pilgrimage presentations.
Two venerable townhouses in St. Francisville’s National Register-listed downtown Historic District are featured on this year’s pilgrimage. On Royal St., Prospect was built in 1809 and during Audubon’s tenure was occupied by Dr. Isaac Smith, early physician, LA State Senate president and great advocate of higher education. Another public-service minded figure, Dr. O.D.Brooks, purchased Prospect in 1879. As a 16-year-old boy he saw Civil War action alongside his father, owned the Royal Hotel, had a pharmacy, and served on the School Board for three decades, facilitating establishment of the parish’s first public school.
On Ferdinand St., the second of downtown’s two main historic streets, Baier House was a simple four-room cottage considerably embellished by former mayor and master carpenter George Baier when he finally moved from flood-prone Bayou Sara up the hill to the safety of St. Francisville’s high-and-dry location. He had nearly drowned in Bayou Sara in the flood of 1920/21, when the Weydert brothers saved him as he held onto ropes trying to keep his house from being washed away. Its steep backyard gives testament to St. Francisville’s description as the little town that’s two miles long and two yards wide.
In the countryside, Spring Grove was built in 1895 on lands carved from Afton Villa Plantation for Barrow descendent Wade Hampton Richardson IV. It was considered an ideal country home supplied with modern conveniences to make rural life agreeable. When his only daughter married at 18, the house was expanded so that she could raise her family there, and in later years it has expanded even more...a bedroom here, a bigger kitchen there...to warmly welcome subsequent generations.
Another country house is the Lemon-Argue House, fine example of vernacular architecture and a fascinating yeoman farmer’s cottage illustrative of 18th-century timbering techniques with its handhewn logs of blue poplar. Built by Irish immigrant William Lemon around 1801 on a Spanish land grant, it has recently been donated by his descendants to LSU and the Rural Life Museum for use as a classroom, research lab and historic house museum providing hands-on experience for students in many different fields. Minimally furnished for pilgrimage tours, this is a preservation work in progress.
Other popular features of the 2020 Audubon Pilgrimage include Afton Villa Gardens, Audubon (Oakley) and Rosedown State Historic Sites, three 19th-century churches in town and beautiful St. John’s and St. Mary’s in the country, plus the Rural Homestead with lively demonstrations of the rustic skills of daily pioneer life.
Audubon Market Hall hosts an exhibit of vintage jewelry, an Audubon Bird Exhibit will be shown at Oakley, guided birding opportunities pay tribute to Audubon himself, and other exhibits featuring black history will be at the Old Benevolent Society building.
The Historic District is filled during the day with the happy sounds of costumed children singing and dancing the Maypole; in the evening as candles flicker and fireflies flit among the ancient moss-draped live oaks, there is no place more inviting for a leisurely stroll. Friday evening features old-time Hymn Singing at the United Methodist Church, Graveyard Tours at Grace Episcopal cemetery (last tour begins at 8:15 p.m.), and a wine and cheese reception (7 to 9 p.m.) featuring the pilgrimage’s exquisitely detailed 1820’s evening costumes, nationally recognized for their authenticity.
New this year will be two evening tours on Friday night only. Sainte Reine on Royal Street, its name a reminder of the area’s first tiny fort dating from the 1720s, was built in 1894 by Max Mann, Bayou Sara saloonkeeper and merchant who had the good sense to move up on the St. Francisville bluff high above the river floodwaters that plagued the immigrant merchants below. Mann purchased the lot from Dr. O.D. Brooks of Prospect, great-great-grandfather of the present owner. On Ferdinand St., the Leake House is a wonderful old Acadian-Creole house probably dating from the 1840s, judging from the handhewn red cypress beams and bousillage. It was moved from Bayou Lafourche to a lot consisting at most of a foot or two of level ground beside the street and then a precipitous drop 40 or 50 feet to the creek below. Industrial-style pilings and back-filled cement walls now support a house of three stories to the rear, looking as if it has been rooted in this spot forever.