NEW ROADS TO ST. FRANCISVILLE
Community Coffee “especial” helped us open our eyelids after the late—and somewhat raucous—night before with Aimee and the Ewing brothers in New Roads, Louisiana. We walked over to breakfast at the Country Café, literally walking right into George as we opened the door to the establishment. He joined us at the table for a few minutes, making sure to “take care” of our breakfast as it were, but he couldn’t stay long. Festival prep awaited, and there was much to do with things kicking off in just one more day.
We packed up the van and Tom ran the first leg out of town. The morning was cool, almost cold with damp air and a breeze. Victoria wore a jacket for the first time on the bike—into the wind, over the Mississippi River bridge, and past all the debris. The shoulder was full of chunks of wood, big rocks, and other scraps and chards. We landed in St. Francisville, Louisiana and met up with Laurie Walsh at the Town Hall. We had missed the mayor—he had just taken off for some local event. We made a plan to go get checked in at our hotel then circle back to meet her for some lunch.
She directed us to the Hotel Francis where we checked in and got ready for the day. The hotel was more of a motel, but it had a long driveway out front with a welcoming fountain or water feature as you approached. Also, the hotel offered not only breakfast in the morning, but also “Big Chicken Dinner” was free from 5-8pm with our hotel stay. Later that night, when we would arrive “home,” we’d see folks communing out in the parking lot over a few drinks.
In the meantime, though, we drove back to meet up with Laurie for lunch at the Magnolia Cafe, St. Francisville, La.. We talked about her move here from New Orleans and her three children. Her daughter still lives here in St. Francisville. The school system is highly rated (#2 school district in the state according to Google). Her daughter and fiancée are looking at finances to see if they can afford to stay here—due to the great school system, housing stock is a bit pricey for a young couple starting out….
Laurie shared with us a bit about the restoration of the Benevolent House, a historical centerpiece of the African American community in this area. We also met Charlie Perdue who owns the District Mercantile store and does a lot for the community in terms of building preservation. Laurie gave us a map of town and pointed out some sights for our self-guided exploration as well.
We drove from there up to the Butler Green Plantation to meet Ann Butler who’s family has owned the property for some time. It was her grandmother’s house, she told us, and she spent weekends there during childhood, coming in from Baton Rouge. As she grew up, Ann moved away from Louisiana and lived in many places—California and DC to name a few. At a certain point, she realized it’s not where you are but who you are, and decided to move home to take over the home in St. Francisville. She wasn’t intimidated by the small town mentality anymore, but it was difficult to make a living there as opposed to the big city. She did some work refurbishing it and turned it into a bed and breakfast, also opening the home to the public and providing tours for 23 years.
Ann says it is hard to support an old place like this, especially while trying to keep up her writing career. She’s “had all joys of dealing with traveling American public I can stand. As a writer, it was a little disruptive… the first ten interruptions I was polite, and the next ten I was marginally civil, and the last ten I was yelling at them.” On the flip side, though, Ann thought being in a small town in a house like this would be very confining, but it turns out the world has come to her. Thanks to the bed and breakfast, people come to escape, they come for peace and quiet again and again, year after year, and she’s been able to see people grow up through generations revisiting her here.
Ann told us all about the gardens, established back in the 1800s, the live oaks also several hundred years old with their resurrection fern—resilient creatures. Later Tom and I would take a walk and go exploring the grounds and all the lushness. Ann and one other worker try to keep up the gardens themselves these days, and she says you just can’t let it overwhelm you. As soon as one end of the lawn is mowed, it’s growing up again all around you. You do what you can and dream of having more money to do more some day.
As for Ann’s writing, she’s got her pen into everything—from Louisiana history to children’s books to cookbook’s to true crime stories. She was married to a former warden of Angola prison and had access to meet with prisoners and staff. This led Ann to write three true crime novels that were more than just “he shot someone and went to jail” kind of stories—these stories had lessons and history built in. Ann herself has a personal story with that prison and that warden, but you can read that in her book Weep for the Living….
Ann was a pleasure to meet and share time with but we had to get back downtown to try and catch the mayor. As we walked into the Town Hall again for the third time, there was Laurie seated in the mayor’s office greeting us and welcoming us in. Mayor Billy D’Aquilla has been the mayor of St. Francisville for 36 years, and is entering his last 14 months in the position. He was born in Fort Adams, Mississippi but has been in St. Francisville for 60 years at this point. According to the mayor, Fort Adams was not much of a town and he didn’t have much of an education, so he headed off for Baton Rouge to get one, waiting to see a red light to know he had gotten there. Well, the first red light he saw, he stopped, and never went any further—happened to be St. Francisville! He never made it to the city after all.
The mayor is very proud of his community. While it has not grown greatly in population, it has grown in other ways, he says. It has a great school system and is tight knit with good medical, a new grocery, and overall quality of life. Being only 35 to 40 minutes from Baton Rouge, you get the best of both worlds, according to the Mayor, and it has an interesting and unique history having been outside of the Louisiana Purchase. Apparently it’s one of the only places in Louisiana WITHOUT a Mardi Gras celebration!
We finished our day with margaritas at a Mexican restaurant. Oddly enough, we’ve eaten at a surprising number of Mexican restaurants on this journey. The award for best tortilla soup still goes to Mi Pueblo in West Memphis, Arkansas.
We opted out of “Big Chicken Dinner” at Hotel Francis, but we got a good night’s sleep regardless.
(sorry so few pics on this one!)