The visitor’s circuit around St. Francisville is well-trodden, and it’s also well-marked. Highway signs point the way to the plantation homes that have made the area a tourist destination, and downtown there’s a plaque at seemingly every turn denoting the significance of the private buildings that make up its famous historic district. Still, on my way to see a local attraction of a different sort, I became increasingly anxious for some kind of direction.
I was driving through the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge, a thickly-forested wetlands habitat laced with hiking trails and accessed by a narrow, deeply-rutted dirt track. Along with a profusion of animals, the refuge is home to a bald cypress that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls the largest tree of any kind east of the Sierra Nevada mountains — essentially, the biggest American tree outside the mighty redwoods. This I had to see, though after bouncing down a rutted dirt track for a few slow miles, I began to fear I’d lost my way.
Facilities, even signposts, are scant around the Cat Island site, and for a good reason. Not really an island, the refuge is more of a convex curve jutting into the Mississippi River. The river inundates the area annually, turning the network of forests and bayous here into one great, seasonal swamp and closing it to anything but boat access. I found myself driving deeper and deeper into a swath of wilderness that had been submerged just a few weeks earlier.
The payoff on this outing would prove worth the effort, and not just for the tree that was the intended goal. But like any good daytrip, this one played out in distinct chapters, a series of experiences that each added up to a varied and memorable visit, and it started high and dry on the bluff where St. Francisville looks down on the river.
History and horticulture
In the 1700s, Spanish monks used this high ridge 30 miles upriver from Baton Rouge as a burial ground, and the town that later developed took its name from their patron saint. The lasting identity of St. Francisville, however, came more from British loyalists who fled the Revolutionary War and settled here, giving the area that would become known as “English Louisiana” a different culture from the Creole and Cajun regions of the state.
That legacy is vividly evident today in the architecture and narratives of historic attractions, especially the plantation houses just outside of town and across the countryside. On this trip I visited Rosedown Plantation and Oakley House, two very different properties about five miles apart that are each run as state museums.
Rosedown (12501 Hwy. 10, St. Francisville, 225-635-3332), completed in 1835, is a Central Casting vision of Southern opulence, with graceful Federal-Greek revival lines framed at the end of an epic oak allée, the statuesque trees lining the approach like columns. The 40-minute tour is a guided walk through well-preserved rooms filled with original furnishings and fixtures of everyday life for affluent planters of the 19th century.
I spent more time just exploring the grounds, which unfold over 28 park-like acres. While the spring bloom is prime time to experience Rosedown’s formal gardens, even in the rippling heat of July a stroll through paths that meander around fountains, through tunnels of oak limbs and under the constant chatter of birds made for a peaceful interlude.
The older Oakley House (1788 Hwy. 965, St. Francisville, 888-677-2838), dating to 1806, is strikingly different in design, with a West Indies influence told across its small rooms connected by an exterior staircase climbing through shaded galleries. The house is part of the Audubon State Historic Site, named for the artist-naturalist John James Audubon who worked as a tutor here in 1821 while painting his soon-to-be-famous folios of birds. Audubon and his work figures prominently in the story of the structure, but the grounds include slave cabins and other facets of the business end of the plantation and the tour and exhibits in the interpretative center tell a more complete history of the antebellum era and the human toll of slavery.
A street tour and social hub
While these and other plantations sit outside of town, the streets of St. Francisville have the feel of a fully-functional historic site in their own right. I picked up a map at the West Feliciana Historical Society Museum (11757 Ferdinand St., 225-635-6330; audubonpilgrimage.info) and began a self-guided walking tour along Royal Street, a loop that hugs the edge of a steep ridge. The stately homes here are all private, though I stopped in for a visit (and some much-needed shade) with artist Herschel Harrington, who paints St. Francisville scenes in an Impressionist style and makes sculpture from riverine driftwood. His Herrington Gallery (907 Royal St, St Francisville, 225-635-4214; herschelharrington.com) is in a 18th century building that has doubled as both his studio and home for about 40 years and has the lived-in intimacy of an artist’s salon.
Later, as the day started winding down, I found a social hub of St. Francisville in a quirky little cluster by the one downtown streetlight. I stopped first at the St. Francisville Inn (5720 Commerce St., 225-635-6502; stfrancisvilleinn.com), a bed & breakfast dressed in intricate Victorian gingerbread and nestled under twisting oak limbs. The inn also doubles as the Wine Parlor, a very laidback bar of sorts spread across the drawing rooms and hallway with a sizable inventory of wine and 40 beer brands by the bottle. After a day tromping around the historic site gardens, a healthy pour of Chardonnay and a comfortable seat in one of the drawing rooms for a chat with innkeeper Laurie Walsh was just the thing.
My next stop was right across the street, where the java joint Birdman Coffee & Books (5687 Commerce St., St. Francisville, 225-635-3665) shares the parking lot with the Magnolia Café (5689 Commerce St., 225-635-6528; themagnoliacafe.net). Expanded from a colorful cottage to include a pair of bars, a screened dining deck and gazebo and a stage for live music on Fridays, it’s the picture of the eclectic casual eatery, serving hummus and hamburger steaks next to enchiladas and pizza.
From my dinner table over a spinach, chicken and feta pizza I had a good view of the related 3V Tourist Courts (5687 Commerce St., 225-721-7003), a 1930s-vintage collection of tiny cabins available for lodging, an offbeat, retro chic alternative to the antebellum bed & breakfasts.
On the tree trail
But before dinner, I still had Cat Island refuge and my quest for the tree. This leg of the trip extended about 10 miles from the main drag of Ferdinand Street in town and along a progressively more primitive path, crossing Bayou Sara on a bridge that can accommodate only one vehicle at a time and was preceded by a disclaimer that motorists should use it at their own risk.
Once in the refuge, I spotted people fishing from the roadside at promising bends in the bayou, though the further I progressed the more my company became exclusively avian. Whole air wings of egrets launched themselves in long, white flashes from the green woods and bayou banks, cruising along at eye level just ahead of me.
Finally, the sign emerged announcing Big Cypress Trail. This hiking route was easy going and not long – maybe half a mile from where I’d left my car to where I found the tree – but it was a fascinating walk through habitat undergoing visible change.
Since the annual flood had receded, green was again flourishing through the dark forest floor between the tall trees and the fallen trunks and limbs that had washed through during high water.
Cypress knees jutted from the ground like stalagmites in a cave, and the dense tree cover and background din of frogs and bugs and other forest sounds quickly closed in. There was no missing my target tree, however. In a clearing of sorts created by its own massive canopy, dappled with leaf-filtered light, it stood like an altar ahead on the trail.
It was clearly the biggest thing around, the massive curvature of its base rising like a wall, then dividing into two trunks and continuing higher and higher. It’s been measured as 56 feet in circumference, and 83 feet tall. But it was not just the size of the tree that was so impressive. There was something almost mystical about it, this endlessly textured, ancient, utterly unsymmetrical construction rising out of the damp earth, set so deep in a crowd of other cypress but standing so distinctively apart and on its own. I later learned from the Fish and Wildlife Service that estimates for the age of the tree range from 700 to 1,500 years.
I stayed as long as the mosquitoes would let me. As I drove away more egrets emerged to fly alongside and in front of my car, as if escorting me out of their refuge and back to the paved roads leading to St. Francisville.
After a day exploring an area famous for its Louisiana history, I was grateful for this side trip and an audience with natural history.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.