Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series on the Audubon Pilgrimage.
The 45th annual Audubon Pilgrimage slated for March 18-20 celebrates spring in St. Francisville.
Among the featured plantations this year is The Myrtles, originally known as Laurel Grove and established in the late 1790s by Judge David Bradford, a wealthy Pennsylvania judge who served as a general in Washington’s army.
As one of the ringleaders of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion, Bradford narrowly escaped with his life to Spanish territory (the St. Francisville area remained under Spanish control until 1810). He built the north section of the house on a Spanish land grant of 650 arpents (a unit of land measurement), said local historian Anne Butler.
The Myrtles was next occupied by Bradford’s daughter, Sarah Mathilda, who at age 16 married 38-year-old Judge Clark Woodruff. The couple added the ornate grape-cluster wrought-iron grillwork to the lengthy front gallery.
After yellow fever epidemics in 1823 and 1824 killed Woodruff’s wife and two young children, he sold the property, along with improvements and slaves, for $46,853.17 to Ruffin Gray Stirling in 1834, the son of Ann Alston and early settler Alexander Stirling.
In the 1850s, Stirling and his wife, Mary Catherine Cobb, added the large central hallway and southern section, doubling the size of the house. Skilled European craftsmen formalized the rooms with elaborate pierced frieze work, the plaster a mixture of clay, Spanish moss and cattle or deer hair.
In June 1852, Stirling’s 19-year-old daughter Sarah Mulford Stirling married William Drew Winter at The Myrtles. Winter served as agent and attorney for his widowed mother-in-law’s extensive properties, including The Myrtles, described in estate partitions as “2,300 acres more or less, comprising all the land between Bayou Sara on the West and the Woodville Road on the East, and between lands of Mrs. Harriet Mathews on the North, and lands of D.S. Lewis and others on the South.”
Butler writes that the prosperous days of the Cotton Kingdom were over, and by 1867 William D. Winter had to declare bankruptcy. However, after a tax sale, the title to The Myrtles was transferred to his wife Sarah, and the family was still in residence in January 1871, when Winter died, according to Grace Episcopal Church records, “shot at his own door 26 Jan. at half past seven o’clock.”
Winter was said to have been teaching a son his lessons in the front room at The Myrtles when he heard someone outside calling his name. Historians say he went out onto the front gallery, and there he was shot dead. His stunned family inside heard the shooting, followed by the sound of horse’s hooves clattering off into the distance.
Newspapers named Sheriff E.L. Weber and George Swayze as Stirling’s murderers.
From the 1890s to the 1950s, The Myrtles plantation was owned by the family of Harrison Williams, who’d gone to fight in the Civil War as a 15-year-old Confederate cavalry courier and whose son married West Feliciana belle Jessie Folkes.
Then followed a succession of owners, including preservationist Arlin Dease, responsible for resurrecting a number of Louisiana’s historic plantation homes.
Today, a popular tourist destination owned since 1992 by John E. and Teeta Moss, The Myrtles has an elaborate entrance door with 1875 Cross of Lorraine hand-painted and hand-etched stained glass panels, matching parlors with twin marble mantels, Baccarat and Bohemian crystal chandeliers and French and English antiques.
The gift shop and ticket office are in one of the property’s oldest structures, recently restored after a near-disastrous fire.