Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series on the Audubon Pilgrimage.
The 45th annual Audubon Pilgrimage slated for March 18-20 celebrates spring in St. Francisville, and for more than four decades, the West Feliciana Historical Society has thrown open the doors of historic structures, homes and churches to commemorate artist-naturalist John James Audubon’s stay as he painted a number of his famous bird studies at Oakley Plantation.
A year’s worth of planning and preparation precedes each pilgrimage, and with 45 years of experience, society members put on one of the South’s most professional pilgrimage presentations, according to local author and historian Anne Butler.
This year’s tour features several townhouses in St. Francisville’s National Register Historic District and two early plantations in the surrounding countryside, each illustrative of the interconnections of early homes and family histories, Butler said.
Included will be the Cabildo, The Myrtles, Rosale Plantation and Vinci Cottage at Virginia, as well as Afton Villa Gardens, Woodleigh Garden, Audubon (Oakley Plantation) and Rosedown state historic sites, three 19th-century churches in St. Francisville, St. Mary’s Church in Weyanoke and the Rural Homestead with its demonstrations of daily pioneer life.
In 1947, when a few determined dowagers of West Feliciana persuaded the state of Louisiana to purchase Oakley, it was in dire need of attention.
Oakley is described by Butler as a West Indies-style, three-story structure with jalousied galleries and lots of live oaks providing shade that made Louisiana summers bearable. The Oakley house was the focal point of a plantation that was well established by the time Irish-born traveler Fortescue Cuming visited the area in 1809.
“In his travelogue ‘Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country,’ Cuming records a visit to James and Lucretia Pirrie’s fine plantation as ‘having the best garden I had yet seen in this country,’ ” Butler said.
Cuming was less enthralled by local culinary practices, finding gumbo “a most awkward dish for a stranger” with the okra making it “so ropy and slimy as to make it difficult with either knife, spoon or fork to carry it to the mouth, without the plate and mouth being connected by a long string.”
In 1821, the Pirries hired Audubon as a tutor and drawing instructor for their young daughter Eliza. He arrived by steamboat penniless and with a string of failed business ventures behind him, but rich in talent and dreams.
Born in 1785 in Santa Domingo to a French ship captain and his Creole mistress, Audubon was raised in France and sent as a young teen to learn English and a trade in America, arriving in 1803 just as the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the country.
In 1820, he set out for New Orleans with only his gun, flute, violin, bird books, portfolios of his drawings, chalks, watercolors and a dog-eared journal. The meager living he earned painting portraits in the city made the Pirrie offer particularly appealing, according to Butler.
When Audubon arrived in the St. Francisville area, he recorded in his journal that the rich lushness of the landscape and flourishing bird life “all excited my admiration.”
His arrangement with the Pirries called for him to be paid $60 a month plus room and board, with half of each day free to collect and paint bird specimens from the surrounding woods.
Popular as the central focus of Audubon State Historic Site for more than half a century, Oakley has been restored and carefully furnished in the late Federal style. Within its 100 wooded acres are a detached plantation kitchen reconstructed on original foundations containing a weaving room and wash room, a barn full of horse-drawn vehicles, farm implements and several rustic slave cabins.
Demonstrations of old-time practical skills and fascinating living-history events often augment the tour of Oakley, which features a picnic pavilion, hiking trails and a visitor center/museum.