The Two Cleveland’s

The “Two Clevelands”

Joseph Jefferson was a famous American actor through the mid-1800s and was most well known for his role as Rip Van Winkle in the dramatic stage version of Washington Irving’s story. In 1869, Jefferson bought a property in Louisiana that had been previously called Cote Carlin, Miller’s Island and then Orange Island (for a large grove of orange trees growing there at the time).¹  Jefferson was a passionate outdoorsman, fisherman, hunter and painter. His intent in purchasing the Island property was to create a retreat from the harsh New England winters where he might enjoy fishing and hunting in the relatively mild climate of south Louisiana.

In 1870, he built his winter home on the highest point of the Island in the midst of an ancient grove of live oak trees (the home is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places). He originally named the 22-room mansion “Bob Acres” after his favorite acting role. The home’s design incorporates a variety of architectural influences including Moorish, Steamboat Gothic, French and Southern Plantation styles and features a fourth-story cupola.

Cleveland Oak and Jefferson home, Jefferson Island

Cleveland Oak and Jefferson home, Jefferson Island

In his role as actor, Jefferson made many friends in the arts, and in business and politics including President Grover Cleveland. In 1892, between Cleveland’s first and second presidential terms, he visited Jefferson at his home on Jefferson Island. During this visit, the President also visited the surrounding areas including nearby Avery Island. As a result of this visit, two ancient oaks, one on Jefferson Island and one on Avery Island, were named in the President’s honor – thus the “Two Cleveland’s.”

Grover Cleveland Oak, Jefferson Island, study 1

Grover Cleveland Oak, Jefferson Island, study 1

The Grover Cleveland Oak on Jefferson Island with a girth of 24′-8″ can be seen as one reaches the split in the entrance road where to the left is the entrance to the gardens, gift shop and restaurant, and to the right is the entrance to the Jefferson mansion driveway. The above photo is a view of the old oak from the expansive lawn in front of the Jefferson home.

Placque at the roots of Cleveland Oak, Jefferson Island

Placque at the roots of Cleveland Oak, Jefferson Island

The Grover Cleveland Oak on Avery Island today has the largest girth of any other oak on the Island at almost 25 feet (though according to Ken and Andy Ringle who grew up on the Island, there was once a much larger oak on their grandmother’s property with a girth of more than 30 feet).

Grover Cleveland Oak, Avery Island

Grover Cleveland Oak, Avery Island

A funny anecdote I heard about President Cleveland’s 1892 trip was that he asked to speak to some of the “common people” – the workers on the Island – during his visit.  Upon entering one black woman’s home he saw a picture of himself, a presidential portrait hung on the wall. He supposedly asked the woman if she knew who it was a picture of and she replied that it was “General Robert E. Lee.”  The president left without correcting her.

Grover Cleveland Oak, Avery Island, study 2

Grover Cleveland Oak, Avery Island, study 2

There is an excellent history of the development of “Rip Van Winkle Gardens” at the Jefferson Island/Rip Van Winkle Gardens’ website.

More information about the Cleveland Oak at Avery Island Jungle Gardens can be found in another post on this blog: Live Oak Society oaks at Avery Island’s Jungle Gardens.

Footnotes:
¹ Jefferson Island is actually one of five major salt domes or plugs that rise above the grassy marshlands and prairies around it (other salt dome islands in Louisiana include Avery Island, Weeks Island, Côte Blanche and Belle Isle).  Source: Louisiana; a Guide to the State, by Best Books on Louisiana, created by the Federal Writers’ Project, 1941

Acadiana’s Top 10 Live Oaks

I just returned from an oak hunting trip through Acadiana to locate the ten oldest live oaks in the area in and around Lafayette, Louisiana. The local tree conservation group, Trees Acadiana, began tracking the oldest area live oaks in the past few years, asking their members and friends to submit favorite old oaks for consideration.

Several of the oaks on Trees Acadiana’s list are from the Live Oak Society’s database of trees that have been registered in the area over the past 75 years. And unfortunately, a few of these trees haven’t been seen or re-measured since they were registered decades ago. In the early days, when trees were registered with the Live Oak Society, details of their location were often minimal – sometimes registration was on a small note card and included only the town or parish where an oak was growing along with the sponsor’s name. Now, two generations later, original sponsors have passed on, properties have changed hands, and the memory of a specific old oak can be pretty fuzzy with local residents.

A few of the oaks on the Trees Acadiana list are near or greater than 30 feet in circumference.  This is significant in that there are less than 20 live oaks in Louisiana of this size and age.  And how old is a 30-foot oak? Age estimates vary, but according to Lafayette area arborist Jim Foret, who has extensive experience with Louisiana live oaks, the most likely estimate is between 400 and 500 years of age. An oak’s size can be influenced by how rich the soil is in which it’s growing, its access to water, and environmental influences like pollution and incursion by foot or vehicle traffic that can impact its root system.

Still, that means 30-foot oaks were mature and growing before Europeans began settling this country – before America was America. For that reason alone, these elder trees should have a more significant place in the cultural and historic awareness of our population, with some minimal protection for them to live to whatever ripe old age a live oak can live. That’s why local organizations like Trees Acadiana are dedicated to reminding people of the importance of live oaks and other trees for the health and beauty of a community.

My goal on this recent trip was to find and verify as many of these top 10 oaks as possible, and share my photos, locations, and new measurements with the folks from Trees Acadiana for their record keeping.

Here’s their top 10 list and a summary of my findings from the trip:

#1 Boudreaux Friendship Oak, Scott, LA (31' 10

Boudreaux Friendship Oak (31′ 10″) Scott, LA

Blanchet-Oak-study-1

#2 The Blanchet Oak (30′ 7″) Lafayette, LA

#3 La Belle Coline Oak (30’+) – Between Carencro and Sunset, LA – Location was verified with Lafayette area arborist Jim Foret, but I was unable to get permission to go onto the property where the tree lives (will revisit in the future).

St. John Cathedral Oak (29' 6

#4 St. John Cathedral Oak (29′ 6″ re-measured with help from Jim Foret) Lafayette, LA

#5 Pete Broussard Oak (28′ 6″) – Near Breaux Bridge, LA; unable to locate.

Robbins-Oak-study-6

#6 Robbins Oak (28′ 2″) Lafayette, LA

#7 Lady Suzan Oak – Near Breaux Bridge, LA (Located oak that is reported to be Lady Suzan, but measurement was much smaller than when it was registered.)

Robert-Earle-Sr_color-2

#8 Robert Earl Sr. Oak (28′ 6″) Lafayette, LA

#9 Rhette Butler Oak (27′ 2″) – Lafayette; located tree but was unable to photograph.
#10 Hooper O’Day Oak (25′ 5″) – Lafayette; located tree but was unable to photograph.

Many thanks to  Sarah Schoeffler and Theresa Rohloff with Trees Acadiana for all of their help locating the oaks, and special thanks to Jim Foret for gaining access to the Cathedral Oak and for arriving at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday to help measure the tree.