While NolaBoomers.com is under construction, our articles can be found here on our sister site, Nola Family.
by Keith Marshall, November 2018
Three peaceful abodes, Afton Villa Gardens and Butler Greenwood Plantation in Anglo-American St. Francisville, and Parlange Plantation in French-settled New Roads, offer glimpses of how three strong and gracious women have adapted the legacies of their antebellum homes to the occasionally harrowing events of modern small-town life.
The towns, located on opposite banks of the Mississippi just over two hours from New Orleans, are bustling communities of historic homes, neo-gothic churches, cute and sometimes quirky shops, a surprising array of traditional and ethnic cafes and restaurants, and simple to elegant overnight accommodations in houses that may boast their own ghosts.
But the presence of these three ladies is real. Just mention their names to a local, and you might hear tales worthy of Faulkner or Truman Capote.
Afton Villa Gardens
Genevieve Munson Trimble, 97, and Afton Villa Gardens, 169 years old, are virtually one and the same.
“I first saw the house and gardens at Afton way back when “Bud” (Morrell) and I were at LSU, and I felt like I was in Daphne du Maurier’s novel, ‘Rebecca’. This, I thought, is how I picture Mandalay.”
Genevieve Munson and “Bud” Trimble married and purchased Afton Villa in 1972, nine years after the mansion had burned to the ground.
A House in Ruins
“We stood in the ruins of the house, and I was overwhelmed, but I remembered Sissinghurst (Vita Sackville-West’s iconic English garden, organized as “rooms” of various colors),” says Genevieve, “and decided to create the Ruins Garden by planting flowers in the colors of each room that had been there.”
Now open annually October through April, the 20 acres of parterre and terrace gardens, a daffodil valley, and an historic family cemetery place Afton Villa among the most celebrated private gardens in the country.
Ivy Jones, who the Trimbles hired in 1972 for two weeks, never left. As manager, he cares for the gardens year ‘round and gives “Mrs. T” a 7 a.m. wakeup call every morning she’s at her home in New Orleans.
“I haven’t missed a day since Mr. Bud passed in ‘04,” he said, then moved quickly to lamenting the lack of rain this summer.
Then, shifting gears again, “See that little marble statue of Flora over there? It’s on a pedestal of bricks they tell me came from the White House.”
In St. Francisville, Grandmother’s Buttons features jewelry made of vintage and antique buttons, as well as an array of humorous gifts; other shops line Ferdinand Street, which leads to the St. Francisville Inn, a traditional dining and overnight accommodation spot. Nearby Petra Cafe offers a surprise: Mediterranean cuisine, and Magnolia Cafe is a local favorite.
Butler Greenwood Plantation
Bed and breakfasts abound, including The Myrtles, reputedly “America’s most haunted house,” Shadetree Inn, and Barrow House. But to get the real feel of the intricacies of life in St. Francisville, book one of the cottages on the grounds of Butler Greenwood Plantation. Plan early if you want to attend the multitude of events at Christmas in the Country, December 7-9 (stfrancisvillefestivals.com).
On a recent Sunday morning, Anne Butler strolled leisurely to her vintage red Thunderbird convertible after communion at St. Francisville’s 1827 Grace Episcopal Church, then sped off to Butler Greenwood, where she holds court as sixth-generation owner of the late 18thcentury manor.
Shot in the chest by her own husband
Butler took a seat on the sun porch where, on a Sunday in 1997, her then husband, former Angola warden C. Murray Henderson (deceased) fired multiple bullets into her torso, then sat calmly across from her to be sure she was dead.
“I don’t think about that much now,” Butler said, while reminiscing how longtime housekeeper Rosemary Blakes had strolled through the room, nodding to Henderson and thinking that the slumped-over mistress of the house had simply changed into a blood-red blouse after church.
“I always said if Rosemary found a body on the floor in one of the guest cottages, she’d just vacuum around it. This was karma getting back at me.”
Rosemary, in her 70s like Butler, is still a fixture on the property.
“Me? I’m just piddlin’ around here,” she told a guest. “Got to guard my health.”
Several years ago, Butler realized that her children weren’t interested in the home’s 19thcentury furnishings. In 2015, the New Orleans Museum of Art acquired the contents of the parlor, said to be one of the most intact surviving antebellum environments, and has recreated the room in its decorative arts wing.
Butler refurnished her parlor to be “serene and simple, so I can look out these windows and bring the outdoors inside, instead of being engulfed by the furniture.”
Across the river, through the tall golden monoliths that anchor the spectacular John James Audubon Bridge, octogenarian Lucy Parlange carries forward her family’s seven-generation stewardship of Parlange Plantation. Her daughter Angèle, a design guru in both New York and New Orleans, introduced Louisianians to the concept of “Brown Furniture,” dark, heavy antique pieces that can become relevant to new generations with a coat of white paint.
Miss Lucy, however, keeps the faith in rooms filled with furniture her daughter might like to introduce to Benjamin Moore.
A force of nature, Miss Lucy — as legend goes — refused to allow French writer Maurice Denuziere — whose 1977 novel “Bagatelle,” reputedly was set at Parlange—through the front gates, as what he wrote was just too scandalous.
Fun around the area
Just down the road, the Pointe Coupee Museum, a single-family French Colonial cottage, displays the lifestyle of a rural family of some means. Volunteer staffers are a fine source of information on the area.
Overnight accommodations are available at the historic Samson House and the slightly earlier dwelling, Mon Reve. Boating and bicycling are the things to do along the False River, a long-ago path of the meandering Mississippi.
Alas, the original Ralph and Kacoo’s has been gone for decades, but Hot Tails offers Cajun and Creole specialties.
There’s an Entente Cordiale between French-settled New Roads and proudly-English St. Francisville. Think of it as a happy marriage of cultures that shouldn’t be missed.
Keith began his writing career in 1973 as The Times-Picayune’s representative in Europe and later served as the newspaper’s classical music writer. He has written travel, art and architecture, and feature articles for major newspapers and magazines.
Read his article for Nola Boomers about Day-tripping along the Gulf Coast