Escaping to St. Francisville

Escaping to St. Francisville

After suffering through three days of rain over Labor Day weekend, I watched in disbelief as a week full of sunshine mocked me out my office window. Saturday couldn’t come fast enough, and we were up and out the door before the geckos had even fled our porch from the night before.

We had saved this trip to St. Francisville until we had the perfect weather conditions, where every historic home glittered in the sunlight and low water levels provided access to the nation’s largest cypress tree. Yet no matter how many times we visit this “best of the small towns,” we always begin our adventure at Grace Church of West Feliciana Parish. Take two steps into the surrounding, tree-shrouded cemetery and you become immersed in history, walking among elaborately carved headstones honoring those who died nearly 200 years ago. The entire area gives the sense of treading through the pages of a book. Three-year-old, dinosaur hunter Charles must have shared the mystique, spinning me a tale of T-Rex eggs and triceratops bones lying just beneath the surface.

Magnolia Cafe

From the cemetery, we strolled around the historic district, making sure to peek in Grandmother’s Buttons, before following a motorcycle crew to lunch at Magnolia Cafe. Outside on the screened-in porch, Paul and I filled up on overstuffed sandwiches, while August flirted with our table neighbors and Charles showed us his collection of dinosaur fossils in between mouthfuls of shrimp.

Our plans had included a trip to the garden ruins of Afton Villa, but a quick stop at the local tourist information let us know they didn’t open until October 1. Instead, we left with a recommendation to visit Oakley Plantation, where famous naturalist John James Audubon once worked as a tutor while creating 32 of his intricate bird paintings. Charles spent his time here giving the resident peacock an afternoon workout followed by making us a meal of mushrooms and osage oranges in the cooking pot on display outside a slave cabin.

Oakley Plantation

Back downtown, we stopped in for an afternoon coffee at Birdman Coffee and Books and treated the kids to some chocolate ice cream. Rejuvenated, we headed back out, this time down a gravel road deep into Louisiana’s wild country. Egrets and blue herons eyed us carefully as we passed their hunting grounds on our way to Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge. Our destination was the National Grand Champion bald cypress tree, accessible by land only from July through December and flooded by the Mississippi River the rest of the year. A short, half-mile hike led to the base of the tree, which unfortunately we could only admire for a few minutes before the inevitable mosquitoes launched their attack. So, while worth the visit, I would definitely recommend bringing bug spray.

Sufficiently exhausted, the kids slept soundly the whole way home, not even waking as we shouted the obligatory “Geaux Tigers!” while driving back over the LSU lakes.

National Grand Champion Bald Cypress


An Adventure at the Rural Life Museum

An Adventure at the Rural Life Museum

Armed with his Batman jacket and Elmo sippy cup, my son, Charles, stood outside the car giddy with excitement. Today he was going on an adventure to Baton Rouge (ok, so maybe he thought he was going to the zoo) but we knew he was going to have fun regardless. So after buckling him in–surrounded by enough toys to last the hour drive to our destination–and clicking the baby’s car seat into place, we set off on our journey.

Mid-morning traffic wasn’t terrible, and we made good time getting to our first turnoff at Essen Lane. We had been to the Rural Life Museum before, back during our college years, but never to the adjacent Windrush Gardens–and never with kids. I’ve found that I discover everything anew when I revisit a place with my toddler, whose interests (and eye-level) are very different from my own.

As we drove down the winding road that led us back to the museum, we marveled at how we felt completely set apart from the city, although we were smack dab in the middle of it. In the time it took me to unload the baby, Charles was already climbing a massive column from Louisiana State University’s original Hill Memorial Library. My husband chased him inside the Visitor Center, where he took a whirlwind tour of the old carriages while we paid our admission.

Ox at the Rural Life Museum

The woman at the front desk informed us that the ox outside had just been fed a pumpkin, so I let my husband poke around the museum while the kids and I went to peek at the giant animal. We heard the ox before we saw it, its deep moo overpowering the air around us. I can’t recall ever being face-to-face with an ox before, and as he gave me a hard, unblinking stare, I understood the awe and fear that was showing in Charles’ eyes.

Another young boy shrieked at the ox and broke the trance he had caught us in. James, who turned out to be a year older than Charles, was a fearless child and laughed at our timidness around the beast. His enthusiasm was catching, and Charles and he became instant friends, inseparable the rest of the time at the museum.

Acadian home (built pre-1805)

Aside from the ox, the outdoor section included 32 buildings illustrating a working plantation and folk and Creole architecture. While James flitted from one structure to the next, Charles followed him in lockstep. They posed for pictures in the outhouse, raced across wooden porches, pointed out the pint-sized “Charlie chairs” that furnished many of the buildings and fished with their stick fishing poles in a small bayou.

Windrush Gardens

I was most impressed by the simple, yet beautiful church, while my husband the gardener saw great potential in the winter Windrush Gardens that promised a multitude of spring flowers. An accidental turn led us to a lovely lake before we made our way back onto the map and through the maze of the plantation garden. James offered us some comic relief when the “squirrel” attacking him, which elicited some high-pitched screams from the once fearless toddler, turned out to be a strand of moss caught in the heel of his shoes.

After a tearful goodbye between the new best friends, we filled our now starving stomachs with boudin balls and red beans and rice from the The Chimes restaurant just off LSU’s campus. As all dining-out experiences are with us, it was an interesting 43 and a half minutes, but we made it through without completely destroying the place.

LSU’s Mike the Tiger

It was late afternoon when we entered LSU’s campus and weighed our options against the fact that Charles was still napless for the day. But we were encouraged by the baby’s amazingly good mood-he hadn’t made a peep the entire trip-and pressed on to see the school’s highlights. So just like the kid in his favorite book, Born to be a Tiger, Charles scaled the Indian Mounds, roared at Mike the Tiger, gazed up at Tiger Stadium (and begged for a way inside the locked gates) and threw his LSU football through the arches in the Quad.

As we drove away that evening, I realized, once again, we had overdone it as usual. Both kids were now squalling and both parents were exhausted. But as the youngsters fell asleep in their car seats, we breathed a sigh of relief at the quiet and inwardly smiled at the amazing adventure we had just given our children.