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St. Francisville’s Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site: Story of Survival

St. Francisville’s Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site: Story of Survival
By Anne Butler

rosedown“Of all the houses in the world it seemed to be the beloved of its own trees and gardens,” said Mississippi-born writer Stark Young when he used Rosedown as a picturesque setting in his acclaimed Civil War novel So Red The Rose, written a full century after Rosedown was built in 1834. That charm and appeal continues unabated today, the house folded in the embrace of 27 surrounding acres of 19th-century gardens and live oaks grown to immense size, and indeed the beauty of the glorious gardens has saved the house itself more than once through the generations.

In 1829 Martha Hilliard Barrow and her husband Daniel Turnbull acquired the Rosedown property from the estate of her father for $60,000; the couple had married in 1828 when Martha was 18 years old and Daniel 28. Here they would erect a stately double-galleried home, all 8,000 square feet of it costing a mere $13,109.20 and completed in just six months, November 1, 1834, to May 1, 1835.

oaksMuch of the labor was performed by slaves during the winter months when planting chores were few. Built of cypress cut from the surrounding woods, the Rosedown house featured Doric columns, double galleries, and a fanlight over the entrance doorway to remind the mistress of her own homeplace, Highland; its style was called transitional Federal Greek Revival. The “workmanship and stile (was) not to be surpassed in the state,” according to the contract with carpenter W. Wright, who had been a contractor for the West Feliciana Railroad, the country’s first standard-gauge line.

The young bride planned a housewarming party for only some thirty guests, but the menu included 6 chickens for chicken salad, 2 turkeys, 2 ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 1 roast mutton, 2 roast chickens, 1 pig, cakes made from 12 dozen eggs, 6 eggs for salad, 16 pints for cream, jelly, blancmange, 23 bananas, 6 pineapples, 2 hogsheads ice, 4 decanters wine, 4 decanters brandy, 2 bottles brandy, 8 bottles champagne, 4 pounds candy fruit, 2 ornamental pound cakes of 12 pounds each, 1 10-pound fruitcake, macaronas, lady fingers, 1 jar grapes, 2 neuga ornaments; “costs 74 dollars, musicians 60 dollars, indeed to induce everything it cost 224 dollars.”

On their lengthy wedding trip through Europe in 1835, Martha fell in love with Versailles and other great landscapes of the Continent and gleaned the inspiration for her own grand gardens. Only such expansive yet orderly grandeur could adequately complement the fine plantation house. Initially five acres of rare shrubs on each side of the avenue, the Rosedown plantings were continually expanded into one of the great gardens of the 19th century and early proving grounds for the exotic flora of the Orient.

camelliaCamellia japonicas, for example, planted at Rosedown as early as the 1830s or ‘40s, were natives of the Orient and Far East, known to thrive in the gardens of Japan and China centuries before they were seen by Europeans. They were initially carried to other lands by missionaries and early medical men, travelling first afoot and then across the seas after trade with the Orient was first opened in the early 1500s by the Portuguese and their infamous Black Ships. Soon trading groups like the East India Companies were formed, dealing in spices, silks, porcelains and other Oriental treasures. It was often the medical officers of these trade companies who first studied the native plants for their medicinal propensities, then introduced the botanical oddities back home.

The gardening journals of Martha Turnbull are a testament to the importance of plantings in early southern life and the amazing variety of not just ornamental but also edible plants she set out…eggplants and tomatoes, turnips, cabbage and lettuce, celery, broccoli, beets and spinach, parsnips, carrots, kale, leeks, potatoes, garlic, onions planted at the full moon, peas, dewberries and raspberries, beans, watermelons, cucumbers and cantaloupe, cauliflower, squash, rutabaga, figs and pears and apples, quince and peaches, plums, artichokes, pineapples in the greenhouse, tobacco and rice.

cookingHere along the Lower Mississippi River where more than half of America’s 19th-century millionaires were to be found before the Civil War, Daniel Turnbull acquired additional lands for an extensive cotton operation. His more practical journal of cash crops and work details, preserved in the LSU Department of Archives and Manuscripts, includes such entries as: “Shipped 308 Bales; killed 20 hogs, weather cold; Rosedown gin running, 6 hands digging holes for trees in orchard; teams hauled pork from landing; 6 men cut up and salted hogs, 4 men whipsawing; heavy freeze last night; new smokehouse, new woodhouse; carpenters and 2 men in the swamp getting out timber for new cabins, 2 ox teams hauled the same, 7 hands worked in orchard, 5 men pressed 14 bales in Rosedown gin.” In 1860 a New Orleans newspaper called West Feliciana one of the richest parishes in the state, and among the largest planters were mentioned Daniel Turnbull of Rosedown and William J. Fort of Catalpa.

The Turnbulls’ seven-year-old son James Daniel died in 1843 of yellow fever, and their grown son William, who with his wife Caroline S. Butler had several children, drowned in the river while herding cattle. Their only daughter Sarah, beautiful “National Belle” of 1849, married James Pirrie Bowman, the son of Audubon’s pupil Eliza Pirrie of Oakley. Sarah was the center of brilliant entertainments and social life at Rosedown prior to her marriage, making the rounds of resorts, dancing the night away at fancy dress balls, touring Europe, and excelling at athletics as well. One account, written later by one of her daughters, tells the story of Sarah in attendance at drills at West Point on horseback when an officer dared her to take a hurdle. A fearless equestrienne, she sat erect and replied, “A Southern girl was never known to refuse a dare,” and gracefully leaped the hurdle. The cadets saluted her and the band played Dixie in her honor. It would be her eight daughters, four of them spinsters, who would struggle to maintain Rosedown after the Civil War through some very lean and difficult years.

gardenIn one particularly poignant scene from So Red The Rose, a Confederate cavalryman rides along the 660-foot oak allee from the plantation house based on Rosedown, tipping his hat to each of the marble statues lining the drive, a final farewell to a vanishing way of life. And indeed life would never be the same at Rosedown, and yet the plantation persevered through struggling years of genteel poverty. After 30 years of recording daily experiments and plantings with unlimited labor and funds, the diaries of Mrs. Turnbull dolefully record the disintegration of the gardens into melancholy wildernesses of sedgegrass during the difficult years of the Civil War, while she tried to save them by paying the help with plantation produce and often working by their side.

Wartime diary entries show the determination of Martha Turnbull, who had been mistress of hundreds of slaves, to do whatever it took to save her garden: “Julia one week at 40 cents…Penny and Lancaster 2 days each, $1.60…Penny cleaning front yard, gave her 2 lbs. coffee, 2 lbs. sugar, pint molasses…Ben hawled all leaves from the Avenue…Kitty and children cleaned up with Clabber paying.” The entry of January 1864 reads, “Up to this time, since the Federals landed in May neither field or Garden has been worked.” In January 1869: “Not one speck of ground yet plowed. Hay all over the truck patch & no manure yet hawled…all work that ought to have been in October and November yet to be done…Very cold & damp-deep snow today-can do nothing-no hands yet in garden but John Prenter & he’s worse than nothing.” And times worsened: “August 23…cleaned up my yard entirely by my own hands and now hawling manure and trash from Eliza’s side,” reads one entry in 1872.

gazeboIn 1874 she initiated a Civil War claim for property confiscated by Union forces in June of 1863, including 300 hogsheads sugar, 600 barrels molasses, 200 mules, 100 horses, 700 head of cattle, 80 wagons, 300 hogs, 6,000 bushels of corn, 50 bales of cotton, 100 barrels of pork, 3000 pounds of salted meat and 20 sacks of coffee. She never received compensation. And yet annual inventories of household items like the one of August 1867 still show remarkable treasures: “24 fingerbowls, 11 flower and 13 dark blue; 24 breakfast forks; 24 dinner forks; 1 asparagus knife; 1 buckwheat knife; 1 custard spoon; 1 gravy spoon; 21 teaspoons; 6 STB coffee spoons; 6 egg spoons; 17 dessert spoons; 17 dinner spoons; 1 cheese knife; 1 cake knife; 2 salt spoons; 1 sugar tongs; 2 butter knives; 12 nut picks; 1 sugar sifter; 23 fruit forks; 24 fruit knives; 1 fish knife; 16 old things in drawer; 6 nut crackers; 1 ham hock; 1 crumb brush…” Census of the labor force and of the animals from the same era, compared with the claim for property confiscated by federal troops, shows the decline: “40 sheep, 2 bulls, 1 old and 1 young, 6 oxen” and “little negroes 105, hands 248, no accounts 12.”
On September 1, 1895, Martha Barrow Turnbull entered her last posting in her garden journal: “My pension came. I had not one dime to pay Emma $2 this month, August or any debt whatever.” Her pension, as a widow of a veteran of the War of 1812, was a monthly check of $8.

Martha Turnbull died at age 87 in 1896, her daughter Sarah, mother of ten, in 1914. The slim Bowman sisters of the next generation, spinsters Corrie, Isabel, Sarah and Nina, inherited the place and all its accompanying responsibilities at the worst possible time, as the boll weevil destroyed the cotton empire upon which the house was built; the parishwide harvest of 1853 had been 24,000 bales, but by the early 1900s only 400 bales of cotton were harvested in West Feliciana. But the sisters did the best they could, selling poultry and cuttings of garden plants, and timidly offering postcards for 25 cents to inquisitive tourists who were allowed in to the house to see only the parlor and dining room.

It would be the gardens that touched the hearts of the Milton Underwoods from Texas when the plantation home and acreage were put up for sale after the last of the Bowman sisters, Miss Nina, died in mid-1955. The detailed gardening diaries of Martha Turnbull span nearly 60 years and prove that she was one of the first to introduce azaleas and camellias to the South beginning in 1836. These records were invaluable restoration tools when oil heiress Catherine Fondren Underwood, after attending a Garden Clubs of America event in Natchez, purchased the property in 1956, her keen eye recognizing the lush beauty of the gardens and haunting dignity of the house even through the creeping undergrowth and peeling plaster.

barnPrior to opening to the public, a meticulous 10-year restoration, overseen by noted New Orleans architects Richard Koch and George Leake and landscape architect Ralph Gunn of Houston who was succeeded by Dr. Neil G. Odenwald, salvaged the house and its unique collection of plantings. A 1930s WPA architect’s survey of Rosedown aided immeasurably in the location of paths, potting shed, conservatory and greenhouse. Century-old sweet olives, cypress, camellias, azaleas, and other flowering shrubs and trees were preserved, and a propagation program regenerated old-fashioned roses, rare hip gardenias with their seed pods glowing like bright orange lanterns, and lace-cap hydrangeas from the original 19th-century stock.

For decades Rosedown was the strong draw for tourism in St. Francisville, nationally recognized, well publicized, admired by preservationists and gardening enthusiasts for its attention to historical accuracy, a generous community partner for the entire area. But after the death of the Underwoods, the house with several thousand surrounding acres was purchased in 1994 for $3.75 million by a most unfortunate owner, who sold the cattle, sold the timber, sold some of the property, removed the marble statues lining the avenue, replaced knowledgeable tour guides with audiotapes and made visitors look through plexiglass rather than entering the rooms at an exorbitant entrance fee which generated tremendous ill will. He divided and sold the enormous Gothic Revival Henry Clay bedroom suite for which an entire wing had been added to one side of the main structure, balanced on the opposite side by a library; Daniel Turnbull purchased the immense set, which had been ordered for use in the White House, after Clay lost his bid for the presidency in 1844. The bed alone was sold to the Dallas Museum of Art for $450,000, matching side chairs went to Houston’s Bayou Bend museum, while the dresser, wash stands, massive armoire and cheval mirror went in different directions. Other purported contents of the house, seemingly everything that wasn’t nailed down, were sold at auction on the grounds, where local preservationists tried to purchase what they could so the items could be returned to Rosedown.

statueHe even tried to evict the little black Rosedown Baptist Church, on property well removed from the main house, given to the congregation way back in time and surrounded by a cemetery. That threat caused outrage in the entire community. Eventually the one-acre church property was purchased by an anonymous local resident and the deed handed over to the rector, the Reverend Lafayette Veal, Jr., a heartwarming recognition that any appreciation of area history and heritage must of necessity include the major contributions of black community members and of the importance of black churches to life through the generations. Rev. Veal, whose father pastored the church before him, recalled the night Rosedown’s new owner came to break the bad news to the congregation: “I was thinking and praying at the same time, ‘What is wrong with this man?’ Then it came to me: Satan is in our midst.”

Maybe it could have been worse. Sotheby’s International Realty had listed the property---2100 acres of woodlands, pasture, gardens and plantation house, with this sales pitch: “Currently maintained as a museum, Rosedown Plantation is well suited for a number of possible uses such as a hunt club, horse or cattle farm, private school, spa/health club, hotel/restaurant or residential development.”

Finally the State of Louisiana stepped in and purchased the house, gardens and close to 400 acres for $5.7 million in November 2000. Today Rosedown, magnificently furnished and now a State Historic Site and National Historic Landmark, represents one of the South’s finest examples of antebellum culture, a picture of life along the River Road during the Cotton Kingdom. Rosedown’s grand gardens remain one of few extant 19th-century gardens in America. Rows of live oaks form a vaulted canopy above the entrance allee, considered one of the most beautiful approaches in the South. On the grounds, a compelling collection of original outbuildings—barn, plantation doctor’s office, milk house, latticed gazebos—provide further understanding of the operations of the early plantation communities, and here Rosedown’s staff periodically demonstrates early plantation skills like down-hearth cooking in the detached kitchen, using actual recipes from the Turnbull family and their descendants.

One of the area’s iconic events, a fall tradition for gardening enthusiasts across the south organized in tribute to the glorious 19th-century gardens still extant in the St. Francisville area, is the Southern Garden Symposium October 18 and 19th, when nationally renowned speakers conduct programs in plantation settings including Rosedown, Afton Villa and historic churches on Friday; a Saturday symposium at Hemingbough features outstanding lectures, autographed gardening books and tools. For information and ticket information, online This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

hummingbirdsOther fall events drawing visitors to the St. Francisville area include the Feliciana Hummingbird Festival at the National Wildbird Refuge in Tunica on September 15, the Angola Rodeo and Craft Show every Sunday in October, the popular Yellow Leaf Festival in Parker Park on the 27th and 28th of October, and the Myrtles Plantation Halloween Experience weekends throughout October.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. Several splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses in St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 o r 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, or www.stfrancisville.net (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).