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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
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