The Live Oak Society—the original 43 member trees

The first 43
I recently received copies of two articles written by Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens (founder of the Live Oak Society) for the Louisiana Conservation Review (a discontinued publication of the Louisiana Department of Conservation). Many thanks to Dr. Bruce Turner and Jane Vidrine of the Special Collections Division at the Edith Garland Dupré Library at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette for their help in getting copies of these articles. (They are posted under the “Pages” heading in the right table of contents column of the blog. When the page opens just click on the title and it will open a photocopy of the original article.)

The first article titled, “I Saw In Louisiana a Live Oak Growing,” contains the original proposal by Dr. Stephens to establish an organization comprised entirely of live oak trees that were 100 years of age or older (now called The Live Oak Society). The article’s title is borrowed from a Walt Whitman poem of the same name. This article, dated April 1934, marks the founding of the Live Oak Society in Louisiana and the South.

Stonaker Oak, New Roads vicinity (29' 6

Stonaker Oak, New Roads vicinity (29′ 6″) #16 of 43


Stonaker Oak, view #2

The second article is titled “The Live Oak Society.” In it, Dr. Stephens discusses the reactions and comments he received from his previous article and recommendation to form the Live Oak Society.

Stephens’ appreciation for live oaks grew over many years of living in Louisiana and from frequent motor trips he took with his wife along the back roads and byways through Cajun country. Influenced by his background as a science teacher, he observed, measured, photographed, and collected data on the oaks, taking special interest in the oldest and largest of the species.

Parks Oak #1; 25+ feet (#10 of 43)

From his perspective as a scholar and poet, he recognized the deeper truth of this Southern icon—that more than any other aspect of the landscape, the live oak symbolically reflects the most memorable and distinctive characteristics of the cultures and people that settled this rich alluvial region: strength of character, forbearance, longevity, and a hearty nature.

Stephens wrote, “To my mind the live oak is the noblest of all our trees, the most to be admired for its beauty, most to be praised for it strength, most to be respected for its majesty, dignity and grandeur, most to be cherished and venerated for its age and character, and most to be loved with gratitude for its beneficence of shade for all the generations of man dwelling within its vicinity.

…I suggest that the members of the Association shall consist of trees whose age is not less than a hundred years. I at present number among my personal acquaintance forty-three such live oaks in Louisiana, eligible to qualify for charter membership.” Seventy-four years later, the Live Oak Society counts more than 7,000 member oaks on its registry in 14 states (and now includes Junior League trees with a girth of at least eight feet).


Gebert Oak, study 3, #43 of original 43 inductee oaks


Gebert Oak, study 1, New Iberia, LA

In 2008, I wrote an article for the American Forests magazine in which I attempted to locate and photograph as many of the original Live Oak Society inductees as I could locate. Using Dr. Stephens’’ 74-year-old article as a guide, I began retracing his drives across South Louisiana, along bayous with names like Teche, Lafourche, Maringouin, Grosse Tete, and Terrebonne—French and native American names that evoke romantic images of moss-draped trees, Cajun fisherman in flatboats, sultry heat, and white-columned plantation homes. Dr. Stephens listed the 43 charter oaks in order of their size—large to less large—noting their circumference, name (usually that of a sponsor), and general location.

Avery Island Oak number 2; 24' 1" (#21 of 43)

Avery Island Oak number 2; 24′ 1″ (#21 of 43)

I quickly realized that I was naïve about the degree of change that can occur in a landscape over 74 years. Plantation homes have faded away, changed names, been parceled off and subdivided, or simply torn down. Properties have changed owners and entire families have died or moved away.

Avery Island Oak number 2; 24' 1" (#21 of 43)

Avery Island Oak number 2; 24′ 1″ (#21 of 43)

In some cases, oaks have been registered more than once, and by different owners, adding to the confusion between Dr. Stephens description of a tree’s location and the current landscape. Some oak names were familiar to a few locals and were not particularly difficult to find. Others required extensive research through libraries, the Internet, books and the kind assistance of many local librarians, chambers of commerce, sheriff’s deputies and Louisiana Garden Club members across the state.

Thomas Boyd Oak and state capital; 20' 6" (#38 of 43) tree fell down in Hurricane Gustave and has been removed.

Thomas Boyd Oak and state capital; 20′ 6″ (#38 of 43) the tree fell down in Hurricane Gustave and has been removed.

In 74 years, I confirmed that four of the inductees had died including the top three. I suspected that six more were deceased possibly due to urban growth and development (a total of 14%). Of the original 43, I found nineteen oaks (45%) alive and well. I was unable to locate or accurately confirm the identity of fourteen more (but suspect they are still alive).

Since 2008 when I wrote the American Forests article, I continued my search for the rest of the 43 whenever I’m photographing in an area where they were located.  At some point soon, I will publish an update that will include any other of the original inductees I have been able to accurately identify and document.

Oak Alleys of St. Francisville

Rosedown Plantation oak alley

Rosedown is located on Highway 10, near the intersection with Hwy. 61, and about 1/4 mile east of St. Francisville, Louisiana. The avenue of oaks, the formal gardens, statuary, and landscaping at Rosedown are fine examples of the influence of classical European garden styles on Louisiana plantations. Rosedown was established in the 1830s by Daniel and Martha Barrow Turnbull, and it stayed in the hands of their descendants until the 1950s.

Rosedown oak alley, center view

Rosedown oak alley, center view

The plantation encompasses approximately 374 acres outside of St. Francisville and is one of the most intact examples of a working plantation complex from antebellum Louisiana. It represents the lifestyle of a wealthy planter more accurately than many other surviving plantations. The centerpiece of the grounds is the alley of live oaks leading to the front portico of the home. The alley is approximately 150 years old.


Oak in gardens, Afton Villa

In 1828, Daniel Turnbull and his wife Martha visited Versailles and other post- Renaissance gardens in France, Italy and England on a tour of Europe. On returning home, they began to landscape the grounds at Rosedown to resemble the extravagant gardens they had seen throughout Europe. The gardens became Martha Turnbull’s passion.

Beginning in 1836, she kept a daily garden diary detailing the planting and management of the gardens—the most extensive first-hand account available of nineteenth-century plantation life and gardening in the Deep South. Her diary entries end in 1894, a year before her death at the age of 87. It was discovered in the mid-1990s in the attic of a Turnbull family descendant.


Afton Villa garden study 1

The diary has been transcribed and annotated by preservationist and LSU professor emerita of landscape architecture Suzanne Turner (The Garden Diary of Martha Turnbull, Mistress of Rosedown Plantation – LSU Press). It contains not only insights into the role of kitchen and pleasure gardens in the lives of plantation families but also “reveals the portrait of a courageous and resilient woman who survived the death of two sons and husband prior to the Civil War and her perseverance during Reconstruction by growing and selling food as a truck farmer.”

Rosedown plantation and its gardens are now a Louisiana state park and are open to the public for a fee.

Afton Villa oak alley

There are more than 250 live oak trees planted in the loosely arranged alley lining the half-mile-long curved entrance road to Afton Villa Gardens. Since other alleys are generally planted in evenly spaced rows, this design style is the most unusual alley of oaks that I’ve photographed in Louisiana.


Afton Villa oak alley, view toward front gate

The oaks are interspersed with tree-high azalea bushes along the length of the alley, and in March and April, their blooms flood the alley with color. The gardens are also noted for their daffodils, which cover an entire sloped hillside of the grounds.

Afton Villa oak alley toward end of alley

Afton Villa oak alley toward end of alley

The plantation home at Afton Villa burned in the 1960s, but the gardens are still maintained and open to the public in the spring (March to June) and fall (October to December). The plantation name was taken from the song title, “Flow Gently Sweet Afton,” a favorite tune of Mary Barrows, daughter of David Barrows, who owned the plantation in the 1800s.

The Oaks Plantation oak alley


The Oaks Plantation oak alley, view from gate

Located on Hwy 61, less than one half mile north of St. Francisville. The alley of oaks is planted in an unusual L-shape from the entrance road off Hwy. 61 to the front porch of the house. The trees are approximately 120 years old and were likely planted around 1888 when the home was built by Judge Thomas Butler.


The Oaks oak alley, view from dogleg turn

Recovering from Civil War and Reconstruction, Thomas Butler built a new house for his family in 1888. The house style he used is now termed “Carpenter Gothic” in tribute to the powered saws and turning lathes of the late 19th century. The style, popular at the time, contained gingerbread trim, dormer windows, and turrets.

The Oaks Plantation oak alley and home

The Oaks Plantation oak alley and home

The home stayed in the Butler family until the last member died in 1973. At that time, The Oaks Plantation and home were purchased by the current owners, Irwin and Betsy Daniel.

The Oaks is a private residence and not open to the public.

Old oaks and new azaleas – visiting New Roads and St. Francisville oaks

Old oaks and new azaleas – New Roads and St. Francisville, LA

Cyndi and I recently returned from our annual azalea-season swing through South Louisiana—that time each spring when for a colorful month or so, azalea blooms burst like multicolored confetti across yards, gardens, and parks from New Orleans to New Iberia and north from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nacogdoches, Texas.

Cleveland Oak and Jefferson home, Jefferson Island

Cleveland Oak and Jefferson home, Jefferson Island

After a brief stop at Jefferson Island and Avery Island, where we revisited the old oaks at both locations, we spent several days in the St. Francisville and New Roads areas. We revisited and measured the Randall Oak in New Roads (36’ 5” in circumference) and met its current owners, Madeline and David Breidenbach. I’ve written about the Randall Oak before (post from May 24, 2014), but wanted to revisit this magnificent tree, spend time walking its perimeter, standing under its enormous branches, and photographing it.


Randall Oak full view, north side

Because of its girth, The Randall Oak deserves to be one of the officers of the Live Oak Society (possibly next time they revisit that list). To my knowledge there are less than a dozen live oaks with girth’s of more than 30 feet in Louisiana and the South. These are trees that were already mature when Europeans first began settling what became America, and as such, should be recognized as national heritage trees. (I’ll focus on these oaks specifically in a later post…)

Randall Oak, color study

Randall Oak, color study (the red-orange color is from the oak flowers)

In the historic heart of New Roads, we met Randy Harelson and Richard Gibbs, owners of the LeJeune House on Main Street. There we photographed the Francois Samson Oak that grows behind their home and spent a pleasant time discussing local history and oak trees. With a girth of nearly 29 feet, the Francois Samson Oak is one of approximately 62 oaks registered with the Live Oak Society in Pointe Coupee Parish.

Harelson is the author of the book, New Roads and Old Rivers, Louisiana’s Historic Pointe Coupee Parish (LSU Press). It’s a wonderful review of Pointe Coupee’s rich history, beautifully illustrated with color photos by Richard Sexton. It’s a lovely book, created through the fund-raising efforts of the Pointe Coupee Historical Society  (we purchased an autographed copy from Randy before we left).

New Roads is the parish seat of Pointe Coupee. The first settlement there can be traced back to 1822, a little later than the French and German settlements along the Mississippi River above New Orleans. Since its founding, New Roads has been the hub of an agricultural community that produced sugar cane, cotton, pecans, and other crops. Since the 1900s, New Roads has become a resort community where people from across Louisiana come to enjoy the tranquil waters of False River.

Actually the river is an ox-bow lake formed when the Mississippi River changed its course sometime in the distant past, choosing another path for its main channel. As a result, there are numerous old live oaks growing in the rich alluvial soil that lines the river’s banks, like the Langlois Oak (located on the west bank of False River north of downtown; girth 27 feet, nine inches.

Langois Oak, New Roads, LA

Langlois Oak, New Roads, LA

Taking the new John James Audubon bridge, we crossed the Mississippi near New Roads to St. Francisville. There we explored the azalea-festooned oak alleys at Afton Villa Gardens and The Oaks Plantation, where we were fortunate enough to catch the azaleas near the peak of their spring bloom, bursting with brilliant pinks, rust-reds, magentas, and soft whites.

Afton Villa oak alley and azaleas

Afton Villa oak alley and azaleas

We spent a bright morning at the Oaks Plantation where with the permission of owners Betsy and Irv Daniel, we photographed their alley of oaks that leads from the front gate off Hwy 61 around a dogleg turn then to the porch of their historic Gothic Victorian home built around 1888.

The Oaks Plantation, oaks and house

The Oaks Plantation, oaks and house

(Next post – More about The Oaks and Afton Villa)