Early Jewish settler and successful businessman Julius Freyhan is credited with building the first school in West Feliciana Parish at the turn of the previous century. His namesake Freyhan Foundation is working to ensure his contributions to the area will be a part of St. Francisville’s future and not just its past.
The Freyhans were one of many Jewish families who left Germany and the neighboring regions to escape anti-Semitism and practices that limited wealth development by restricting land ownership. These immigrants found their expertise in merchandising and finance and filled a gap in the developing agriculture-based communities that line the Mississippi River corridor in the United States.
Foundation records explain that Freyhan arrived penniless in America at age 21 in 1851, but by the time he died in 1904 he was one of the wealthiest and most respected men in Louisiana. Freyhan, and later his widow, provided the bulk of the money used to build the school.
The Freyhan School was used until the 1950s and fell into disrepair. Freyhan’s descendants have moved away, but his granddaughter, Pauline Freidman, left a sizable gift in her will to continue her grandfather’s legacy and support the restoration efforts of the Freyhan Foundation as it worked to revive the school as a community center and museum.
The Freyhan Foundation’s restoration campaign has three parts: Temple Sinai, the Freyhan School and The Amphitheater. The Temple work is complete, work has begun to restore the school and the work to build an amphitheater overlooking a bluff of the river will be the last phase. “With the help of the National Trust in Washington, the Freyhan Foundation was able to restore the temple building and work is now being done on the school,” said Janice Wynn, a foundation board member.
The Foundation also supports the annual Walker Percy Weekend in St. Francisville and proceeds from the event will be used in the historic restoration project. During the last Walker Percy event, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that state capital outlay funding had been approved to assist in the Freyhan restoration campaign.
Betsy Levasseur, Freyhan Foundation director, explained the restorations will provide both cultural and economic boosts to the community. “St. Francisville is already a destination for regional, national and international visitors,” she said. “Our center will join the roster of important institutions in this area that present history with hospitality and rural sensibility with an urban sophistication.”