The Over in a Heartbeat Blues

Wednesday, April 01, 2015 Road Junkies 0 Comments


CHASING THE BLUES, CHAPTER 8:  La Place, LA, to Vicksburg, MS

Leaving La Place this morning, we reversed directions again, turning the car west on US-61, familiarly known as the Blues Highway, a.k.a. the Great River Road.  This backcountry route afforded us the relaxing pleasure of bypassing Baton Rouge and the frenetic traffic on the interstate highway.

We had left Acadiana, the southern portion of the state where French influence is strongest, and were driving through an area known as the Florida parishes. Like the lower reaches of Alabama and Mississippi, this section of southeastern Louisiana was once part of Spanish Florida.  Soon after the American Revolution, Anglo-Saxons migrated here from the East Coast, settling on parcels of land granted by the Spanish crown.

When Thomas Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Florida parishes region was not included, as it was still claimed by Spain.  By 1810, the American settlers there had tired of Spanish rule and decided to take charge of their own destiny.  In September of that year, armed rebels stormed Fort San Carlos at Baton Rouge, easily defeating the understaffed Spanish, and declared this area the Republic of West Florida.  The independent nation quickly established a government, complete with a constitution, governor and small army. A blue banner centered by a large white star was raised as its national flag, and St. Francisville was named the capital.

Such a tiny republic in the midst of dominant nations was doomed from the start, and just 74 days after independence was declared, President James Madison announced that the United States was annexing the territory as part of the Louisiana Purchase.  Though the provenance of his claim was questionable, Madison had the power to enforce his decree.  The fledgling republic's government opposed the takeover, but capitulation was inevitable and swift when the U.S. Army marched into St. Francisville.

After an hour and a half along US-61 this morning, we made our own foray into St. Francisville (pop. 1,704), but our intentions were peaceful.  Perched on a bluff on the east bank of the Mississippi River, this quaint and picturesque village began its existence in the late 18th century as a burial ground for a church situated on a floodplain on the river's opposite side. In 1785, the Spanish Cappuchin monks who had established the church built a monastery near the graveyard, naming it St. Francis in honor of their order's patron saint.  Though the friars' building later burned, the settlement that had grown up around it kept the name and established the town as St. Francisville.

Museum exhibits detail the history of the town and parish.
Our first stop in town was the excellent West Feliciana Historic Society Museum and Tourist Information Center on Ferdinand Street, where we were warmly greeted by Mildred, a local volunteer.  After she introduced us to a bit of local history, we browsed through the outstanding museum exhibits before setting out on a walking tour of the St. Francisville historic district.

White's Cottage, a 1903 urban adaptation of the Southern dogtrot house
Concentrated on Royal and Prosperity Streets, the district shelters an assemblage of 19th and early 20th century residential and institutional buildings which have been lovingly restored and maintained.  The informative brochure we picked up at the museum guided our way, and interpretive signage along the route filled in more details.  A distance of about two miles, the walk was quite pleasant as we began, but by the end, the rising heat and humidity had our enthusiasm wilting.

Back at the museum, we picked up our car and drove east out of town to our next stop.  On the way, we took a wrong turn and stumbled upon a surprising sight.  Queen of the Mississippi, a Victorian style paddlewheel riverboat, was moored at the end of a dead end road, receiving a delivery from a food purveyor.  It seemed an odd place for the boat to stop, but the passengers and crew had to eat, so presumably no one objected.

Sysco delivers the goods.
Only a couple of people from the kitchen staff had disembarked at this provisioning stop so we didn't have occasion to chat with anyone, but we grew curious about this anachronistic, calliope-enhanced form of transportation.  A perusal of the American Cruise Lines web site left us stunned at the cost of such an excursion.  An 8-day round-trip cruise from New Orleans to Vicksburg will set you back $4,450—per person!  A queenly sum indeed.  And that's in a room so tiny it's suited for only one guest.  A mid-size stateroom goes up to $5,905 per person.  Per person.  For eight days on the not-so-exotic Mississippi River.  The cruise includes all meals and a handful of land excursions to places like the plantations we've visited in the last couple of days, none of which cost more than $20 for admission.

For comparison's sake, we examined a few Alaska and Caribbean cruises offered by competitors and found their two-person cost considerably less than a single fare on the Mississippi River.  It goes without saying those ocean-going vessels also offer a plethora of amenities and facilities this little paddlewheeler (150-guest capacity) can only dream of.

Oakley House with West Indies style galleries
Still scratching our heads in wonder about who would take this river cruise and why, we arrived at Oakley Plantation, home of the Audubon State Historic Site.  In 1821, famed ornithologist John James Audubon spent four months here, tutoring the teenage daughter of the plantation's owner in drawing while he worked on paintings for his groundbreaking Birds of America.  Guided tours of the house and brochure-informed strolls around the grounds give visitors the opportunity to walk in his footsteps.

Rosedown carriage approach
After Oakley, we headed to our last stop in St. Francisville—Rosedown, an antebellum cotton plantation, arriving just in time for the 2:00 tour with Susan, our first plantation guide not dressed in period attire.  She was quite engaging, nonetheless, and everyone in our group of twelve seemed to enjoy her presentation.  Afterward, we wandered the grounds, delighted to encounter John, a Rosedown gardener—just the person to ask about the odd cedar tree with an oak limb we had seen in the side garden.  After explaining how an acorn had fallen into a hollow in the cedar's trunk and found enough organic matter to sprout and grow, he introduced us to Danny, who was guarding the Rosedown back veranda.

With his two partners, Danny lives on site and helps keep the rodent population in check.  Sitting near his post was Michelle, the rookie cruise director from the aforementioned Queen of the Mississippi, whose passengers had just arrived at Rosedown by bus.  She didn't know too much about her job or the cruising life yet, so we conversed with her only briefly and let her get back to enjoying a break while the river riders were touring the plantation house.  The bus driver, Harry, whom we met at the parking lot, was considerably more experienced and told us a few interesting tales about his many adventures piloting a charter bus.

Before leaving town, we took time for a driveby of one final plantation.  Built in the 1790s, Butler Greenwood is owned and occupied today by descendants of the original 18th century Spanish land grant recipients.  Set amid 50 landscaped acres populated with hundreds of ancient live oaks, various cottages on the property are operated as a B&B.  But this was not the place for us today; we had reservations farther north.  So we returned to US-61 and within 15 minutes, we were in Mississippi.

Butler Greenwood Plantation 
As we bid a reluctant farewell to the captivating St. Francisville in the late afternoon, we still had almost 150 miles remaining on our itinerary.  Stopping only for a photo op or two, we stayed on the mostly four-lane Highway 61 all the way to Vicksburg.  Even in Natchez, which was in the midst of its popular spring pilgrimage, the road was blessedly uncongested.  In Vicksburg, we found a quick but healthy dinner at the local Newk's, a fast-growing Mississippi-based chain of soup/salad/sandwich restaurants, before checking in at the local Marriott Courtyard.

Tomorrow we'll roll into Clarksdale, the cradle of the Mississippi Delta blues, where we'll spend a couple of days seeking out some authentic down home blues music.

Daily Stats:
  • Miles driven:  251
  • Weather:  clear to partly cloudy, 57° to 77°
  • Tourists on plantation visits:  286
  • Mississippi riverboats:  1
  • French speaking locals:  0
More Photos from Today

Historic United Methodist Church of St. Francisville (1899)
A West Florida republic flag on display in St. Francisville 
Azaleas in bloom at Rosedown
The Rosedown cedar tree that sprouted an oak
Even the barn is picturesque at Rosedown.
Rosedown's front garden from the upper gallery
Mammy's Cupboard, a roadside diner and Highway 61 landmark near Natchez