In Return to Heartwood – A Search for the Heart of Live Oak Country, author and photographer William Guion takes up camera and pen to document the stories and portraits of Louisiana’s oldest live oak trees before they are lost and forgotten. (www.returntoheartwood.com)
Over four decades, I’ve come to know the old oaks as sentient beings who are an essential part of the history, culture, and ecology of the Southern landscape. They are vital to what makes the South visually distinct and culturally rich. But he found the old oaks are disappearing faster than anyone realizes, from climate change, more powerful storms, depleted soil, and unchecked development.
This book is a journal of my forty-year journey through live oak country in search of these elders of the Southern landscape. It is part autobiography, part history, and part appeal to preserve the remaining old oaks before they and their stories are lost forever.
Just downriver from Oak Alley Plantation, is St. Joseph Plantation. According to the Live Oak Society records, St. Joseph Plantation has 16 registered live oak trees on its property, some named after family members, with the largest boasting a girth of almost 24 feet (my measurement).
The old oaks closest to the home are some of the oldest on the grounds. They are estimated to be at least as old as the plantation home (1830) and the oldest, the one standing alone upriver from the home and nearest Oak Alley (see photo above), may be 300 years old or more.
The oldest oak at St. Joseph Plantation is located on River Road on the upriver edge of the property, near the Oak Alley Plantation property line.
Brief history of St. Joseph Plantation. In 1840, Dr. Cazamine Mericq purchased the plantation property from the Scioneaux family and using slave labor built the home. Shortly afterwards, he sold it to Alexis Ferry and his fiance’, Josephine Aime. The couple financed the purchase with dowry money from Josephine’s father, Gabriel Valcour Aime.
Valcour Aime owned a much larger plantation next door that was called the St. James Refinery Plantation and he was generally recognized as the wealthiest man in the South at the time. Valcour’s plantation was nicknamed, “La Petite Versailles” for its extravagant gardens and manor. Valcour was married to Josephine Roman, of the wealthy Roman family. In 1836, Jacques Telesphore Roman (Josephine’s brother) purchased a working plantation from Valcour just upriver from St. Joseph Plantation that became Oak Alley Plantation.
St. Joseph’s connection to Oak Alley and Felicity Plantations. St. Joseph plantation was purchased in a post-civil War sheriff’s sale by Joseph Waguespack and the plantation has remained within the Waguespack’s extended family ever since, according to Joan Boudreaux, St. Joseph’s general manager and Waguespack’s great-great-great granddaughter.
The adjoining plantation home “Felicity,” stands downriver from St. Joseph Plantation directly above the location of Valcour’s plantation home. Felicity was built in 1850 with dowry money for Josephine’s Aime’s sister, Felicity, when she married Septime Fortier. So the three plantation homes were all connected through family members and were all on sugarcane plantation land once owned by Valcour Aime. In 1899, Joseph Waguespack purchased the 1,200 acre Felicity plantation and combined it with St. Joseph to create the St. Joseph Planting and Manufacturing Co. Ltd.
The Stonaker Oak was #18 on Dr. Edwin Stephens list of the first 43 inductee trees in the Live Oak Society in 1934. It’s an old oak with lots of stories. It was named for J.S. Stonaker who in 1934 owned the property on which the old tree was growing. The photo below was made by Dr. Stephens and is from the University of Lafayette archives, probably around 1930-1935.
Yet, for years prior to 1934, the old oak was known locally as the St. Maurice Oak. The Labatut brothers, whose family has lived next to the old oak since the early 1800s, still call the old tree the St. Maurice Oak.
This has always puzzled me. So, where did the St. Maurice name come from? A topographical map of Pointe Coupee Parish shows a small Island, or “towhead,” named the St. Maurice Towhead, located directly offshore from the spot where the St. Maurice/Stonaker Oak grows. Thus, the St. Maurice Oak. But, from where did the Towhead name originate? It’s a mystery.
According to a 1932 article from the Louisiana Conservation News magazine, when the oak was measured by Stanley C. Arthur in September 1929, the tree’s girth was 22 ft. 4 in.; The canopy from north to south was 157 ft, and the east to west spread was 166 ft. 4 in. However, before the large limb was removed that hung over the road alongside the oak, its spread was 217 ft.
In the previously mentioned Louisiana Conservation News magazine, there was a curious story about naturalist and artist, John James Audubon and the St. Maurice Oak. Audubon was hired in 1821 by Mr. and Mrs. James Pirrie, owners of Oakley Plantation, on the east bank of the river near St. Francisville, to teach their daughter Eliza to draw. It was during his time as tutor for Eliza that he became especially interested in drawing and painting birds.
According to the Audubon State Historic Site, while at Oakley “Audubon began work on at least thirty-two of his famed paintings of wild North American birds. He supposedly crossed the river frequently via the Bayou Sara ferry to hunt birds on the Pointe Coupee-side of the river. The Point Coupee ferry landing was located about a mile downriver from the St. Maurice Oak, and Audubon was a welcome guest at the Labatut home (located still just a few hundred feet upriver from the old oak). According to the Louisiana Conservation News article, Audubon “undoubtedly sheltered under the St. Maurice Oak on hot days,” and was fond of the old tree and its wide-spreading branches.
So, was the St. Maurice Oak, Audubon’s favorite live oak? It’s possible…
Around 1992-1994, I wrote an article and created a series of infrared black-and-white images for the Newcomb College alumni publication, “Under the Oaks.” It was a fun piece to work on and a study in New Orleans history. The Tulane Department of Communications, who designed and produced the publication, had to get special permission from Newcomb leadership to run the article because they hadn’t had male contributors to the all Women’s College publication previously.
In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, I visited several university campuses specifically to photograph or rephotograph old oaks while the grounds were empty of students and faculty. For this post, I’ve mixed a few of the images I made in 1993 with others I made during the summer of 2020, during the pandemic lockdown while the Newcomb campus was empty.
It’s a little known fact that the Newcomb oaks are closely tied to the history of this famous women’s college in New Orleans. They’ve played a unique role in creating the environment for campus life for almost a century. In 1918, Newcomb College moved from its original location on Washington Avenue to the current campus on Broadway Street, next to Tulane University. As part of the moving ceremonies, women students carried acorns gathered from the oak trees at the original Washington Avenue campus and transplanted them at the new campus site. Those acorns today have grown into the century-old oaks lining the campus quadrangle and sheltering walkways and buildings on campus.
A Brief History of Newcomb College—In 1886, Josephine Louise Newcomb made an initial gift of $100,000 (worth roughly $2.7 million today) to the Tulane Board of Administrators in memory of her daughter, Harriott Sophie Newcomb, who died at the age of fifteen. Over the years, she made other monetary gifts to the school totaling almost 3-million dollars. Newcomb College opened its doors in 1887, offering young women a classical curriculum combined with an innovative art school, with a unique philosophy to train women to be self-supporting in the post-Civil War Southern economy.
Newcomb College is probably best known for its art school, where in its early years the women students created artworks that reflected an interest in craft and their parents’ desire for their daughters to learn practical, marketable skills. From this direction emerged a line or brand of pottery, recognized worldwide and highly collectable today. The Newcomb art curriculum and the utilitarian philosophy underlying it, was unique among art programs and women’s colleges of the time and it developed to be a leader in the American Arts and Crafts Movement. Fine art as well as a variety of crafts were taught, yet it was the pottery program that earned the college an international reputation by the early 1900sC
From the Newcomb art museum website: Newcomb Pottery is considered one of the most significant American art potteries of the first half of the twentieth century. Influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement, Newcomb pottery was exhibited around the world, sold in shops on both coasts, and written about in art journals throughout the United States and Europe. Newcomb potters (always men) and designers (always women) were awarded eight medals at international exhibitions before 1916.) The Newcomb pottery program produced more than 70,000 pieces before it closed in 1939.
After Hurricane Katrina, Newcomb College and its curriculum were restructured, and the old Sophie Newcomb College closed. As part of Tulane University’s Renewal Plan following the major losses and damage of Hurricane Katrina, Newcomb became a co-educational, single undergraduate college called Newcomb-Tulane College. The new college is now more of an extension of the Tulane University System.
Heirs of Mrs. Newcomb sued against this change, challenging Tulane on the issue of donor intent and seeking to preserve Newcomb as a separate coordinate college within the university, but the lawsuit ended in 2011 after an appellate court declined to rule on the case.
In 2006, the Newcomb College Institute was formed as an umbrella organization that runs programs (for women) that were formerly operated by the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College. In its first year (2006–07), under the leadership of founding Interim Executive Director Rebecca Mark (Tulane Department of English), the non-academic Newcomb College Institute hosted 104 speakers and 110 different programs for women, men, and guests at Tulane. Today, under the directorship of Sally J. Kenny, the Newcomb Institute strives to continue the goals of the original H. Sophie Newcomb College—”to promote the development of students’ leadership skills, preparing them to advocate for gender equity and lead in a gendered world.”
While traveling to Mandeville from Ponchatoula, Cyndi and I stopped in at the St. Joseph Abbey in St. Benenedict, LA., just west of Covington. The abbey grounds are home to four Live Oak Society member trees. The largest, the Abbot Paul Schaueble Oak (also called the Abbey Oak), has a beautiful spread and a girth of approximately 22 feet 10 inches. The tree is named after the Benedictine monk who was the first head of the monastery established in 1889 by a small group of monks from St. Meinrad Abbey in Indiana.
You’ll see in my photos, that several limbs of the 60 foot-tall tree are supported by metal pole braces. According to the abbey historian, the tree was damaged by a wind storm (and possibly a tornado) that swept through the area in November of 1957. The winds damaged the mid-section of the oak causing a severe split. But instead of cutting the tree down, the Abbey chose to secure the split with heavy bolts and limb supports. So far, the tree appears to have stabilized.
Note: The abbey was hit hard by heavy rain, winds, and flooding the week before our visit. It was spring, and the old oak was shedding leaves to begin new spring growth and flowers. That’s why the oak has so few leaves in the photos above.