How to Save a Historic Oak

If you want the practical action steps, go straight to the end of this post…

The situation.  I’ve received several emails in recent months from individuals desperately looking for information on how they can save a treasured old oak in their community from removal. The circumstances were all sadly similar.  In each case, a developer, or individual had purchased the land on which an old or historic oak (or oaks) had been growing, possibly for centuries, but certainly for long enough that the tree had become a much-loved part of local history and culture. 

Yet, the new landowner could only see an old tree that was in the way—of a new hotel, housing development, roadway, or real-estate expansion of one form or another. In some cases, an arborist had been hired (by the developer) to give an opinion that the tree was very “old” and possibly even declining in health.

In most cases, the tree was named after a well-known individual and had even been registered with the Live Oak Society as a sign of its importance to those who cared for it and lived around it. The question I got repeatedly was, “certainly, there must be some law protecting a ‘registered’ tree from being cut down?” 

Unfortunately, registering an oak with the Live Oak Society or any other local organization provides no special protection to a tree from its removal. Registering a live oak is only a first step to recognizing an oak as a notable and loved part of a community. Registration is a good idea because it makes people aware of the historical significance of the tree, but unless your community, town, county commission, or other law-making body has created an ordinance or code to protect elder live oaks or other historic trees, then your oak may have no legal protection from the chainsaws of progress and development.    

There are rare cases in Louisiana where oaks have been saved. These are situations that I know of in Louisiana where individuals have joined together with neighbors and friends, petitioned local leaders, and raised enough public support (and interest) to save specific trees from being cut down. 

Mr. Al Oak, near New Iberia, LA

The Mr. Al Oak. In 2009, a 150-year-old live oak tree named “Mr. Al” was saved from certain death by a group of local citizens in the New Iberia area. The old oak was slated for removal by the Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) as part of a frontage road construction project on State Hwy. 90.  The property owner, Kelli Peltier, called friends and began a petition to save Mr. Al.  With the help of local organizations and concerned citizens, as well as support from an ex-governor of Louisiana, the DOTD chose to move the old oak rather than cut it down. (You can read the whole story here.)

Old Dickory Oak, Harahan, LA

Old Dickory Oak. In 2003, neighborhood citizens in Harahan, with the help of The Live Oak Society chairperson Coleen P. Landry, were able to convince the DOTD to reroute the road improvements around the old oak.  Landry and the Society also played a role in saving a stand of 13 live oaks near Jeanerette threatened by highway construction by appealing directly to then-governor Bobby Jindal to help save the oaks. 

The Youngsville Oak.  In another case in which an old historic oak was slated to be removed to make way for a new traffic circle along state Hwy. 92 in Youngsville, local citizens with the help of Trees Acadiana, a local tree-preservation organization, raised enough local support (through the local press and well-known artist George Rodrigue) to convince public officials to spare the tree.  The common thread in each of these stories is local support.

Steps to take to save a tree.

1.  If an important oak tree in your neighborhood or community is in immediate danger of removal, the first step is to make loud positive noise.

Start a petition, get help and support from local clubs, tree-friendly organizations, and gardening groups, as well as the local media. Create a story of the human history of the old tree and emphasize why it’s important to your community’s cultural and historical identity to save the tree. Appeal to your local city council, commissioners, and mayor as well as state-level politicians. Make a strong “positive” argument for these decision-makers to gain their support.  A positive argument is important.  Look for a win-win solution, and other options for the new property / tree owner, Highway Department, or developer that will make it worth their while to spare the tree. In the process, they’ll create good feelings, positive publicity, and positive relationships with the community. There’s always a positive benefit for both sides by saving a tree. 

Not sure how to start a petition? Here are two websites that can help you start a petition online and get it distributed to your community.

• – This site lets you create a professional petition online, gather signatures, and present your results to decision-makers. It’s free and easy to use. – This website is run by a non-profit and though the petition function they offer is also free and easy to use, they also offer help to review and tweak your petition wording to make the strongest possible message. A donation is requested for this service that is well worth it.

2. Prepare now.  Talk to your local garden clubs and find out what laws or ordinances your town or city may have in place already. Does your town have a town or city arborist?  Contact that person.  He or she can provide guidance on what to do. Most cities in the U.S. have some sort of ordinance that provides guidelines for the removal of large and old trees. Your next step is to get your local ordinance or codes amended or supplemented to include protection for historic, notable, or significant trees.  Take steps to establish legal protections now, before a favorite old tree is threatened.  

How you can change local laws.  

The LSU Agriculture Department has created a guide “To Writing A City Tree Ordinance” (a downloadable PDF can be found here). This guide provides a model that you can follow to draft and establish a “tree management ordinance” for both small and large communities in Louisiana or elsewhere.  

Post-publication addition to this post: I’m heartened to read two different stories today in newspapers in North Carolina and Florida where the communities started petitions to save old oaks from being removed to make way for new development. These stories are new, as of the day I’m writing this, but the petitions got the attention of both their local government officials and the news media. That’s the way change starts, many voices being raised to create laws to protect historic trees and urban forests and to reconsider the importance of oaks and other trees to the health and well-being of a community.

Saving the Mr. Al Oak

In 2009, a 150-year-old live oak tree named “Mr. Al” was saved from certain death by a group of local citizens in the New Iberia area.

Mr. Al Oak

Mr. Al Oak after transplant, 2019

The story was published in several local newspapers, though, none of the reporters seemed to get all of the backstory correct. This post is intended to set the record straight on how the old oak was saved, who was involved, and what it means for other communities and individuals attempting to save a historical oak in their town or city.

Mr. Al was growing alongside LA Hwy. 90 (the old Spanish Trail) near New Iberia, Louisiana, next to property owned by Kelli Peltier. Peltier’s family had nicknamed the oak “Mr. Al” after her grandfather who grew up with the tree. The oak had a circumference of 20 feet 7 inches and a canopy spread of 104 feet in 2009. When Peltier learned that the oak was slated for removal by the state Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) as part of a frontage road construction project, she began a search for help to save Mr. Al.  She found that help through Susan Hester Edmunds, then president of the Optimist Club of New Iberia.

If you’re not from Louisiana, New Iberia is located on Bayou Teche in the heart of Louisiana’s “Cajun Country.”  It’s known locally as the City of Live Oaks and has several 100-plus-year-old specimens of Southern live oaks (Quercus virginiana) growing in and about the town.  New Iberia is also known as the location for several mystery novels by writer James Lee Burke.

Mr. Al Oak, infrared study, 2018

According to Edmunds, the Optimist Club usually plants a tree every year as part of its Arbor Day celebration. When she told the group of the plight of Mr. Al, they decided, instead of planting a tree, to pass a resolution in support of saving a venerable tree.  Susan Edmunds worked closely with Kellie Peltier to create an email and letter-writing campaign to solicit wider support. They began a petition and gathered signatures appealing to the DOTD and state officials to spare Mr. Al from removal. The DOTD was sympathetic but was limited in its choices by rights of way laws and strict rules about future expansion plans to convert state Hwy. 90 into  Interstate Highway 49.

Peltier gained further support from the Live Oak Society who reached out to former Louisiana governor, Mike Foster, who lives near New Iberia in Franklin.  The DOTD engineers and administrators finally devised a plan to save Mr. Al.  According to a February 13, 2009, letter from Gordon E. Nelson, Assistant Secretary of Operations for the DOTD to the New Iberia Optimist Club, the state proposed to construct a cul-de-sac at each end of the service road and leave the old oak growing in the middle.

Unfortunately, this first option didn’t work out and the DOTD came up with a plan “B.” They hired a company that specialized in transplanting large trees. In May of 2011, the large tree movers dug up Mr. Al along with its 400-ton root ball and moved it a mile and a half to the intersection of Highway 90 and Weeks Island Road. (you can see photographs of the move here.) They also put in place a plan to provide transplant care for the tree for several years to ensure the tree survived the move. Mr. Al’s new home was outfitted with an on-site well and irrigation system to water the old tree twice a day and guide wires to help stabilize the huge oak until it reestablished its root system.  Following its transplanting, Mr. Al received regular inspections by local arborist, Jim Foret, who carefully watched the tree’s rate of seasonal leaf shed and growth to ensure it settled well into its new home.

It’s now been more than nine years since Mr. Al was moved and the oak appears to be healthy and strong. According to Foret, the tree has root growth far outside the original root ball and, if there are no other significant natural events, such as severe wind storms or lightning, Mr. Al could live another 150 years in his new location.

Mr. Al Oak, in 2013

Mr. Al’s story is important, both for Louisiana live oaks and local communities who believe that preserving century-old oaks is important to local culture and history.  If people wish to save an important oak tree in their community, the first step is to get help from local groups and media. Start a petition; contact local and state politicians. Gather support from as many people as you can and let your local decision-makers know the importance of the tree to your town’s cultural identity. You can save that old tree.  (Much of this post comes from the recollections of Susan Edmunds combined with news articles on the move of the old oak.) .      – BG



Revisiting the Lorenzo Dow Oak


Lorenzo Dow Oak in the rain, Grangeville Masonic Lodge grounds, 35′-8″ girth

Since moving to Bayou Lafourche last December, I regularly consult with the two old oaks in our front yard over photographic work matters. (Cyndi likes to say that I left the corporate world and now I’m employed full-time by the oak trees.) Crazy? Maybe. But the ideas I get when talking to the old oaks are at least as good as those from some of the human supervisors I’ve had over the years.

Last Saturday morning, after checking in with the front-yard oaks and the weather app on my phone, we decided to brave the impending thunderstorms and make a two-hour drive to Grangeville, LA, a postage-stamp-sized town near the Amite River just north and west of Pine Grove. Our objective was to re-photograph the Lorenzo Dow Oak (see my previous blog entry), a 35-foot-plus girth oak located on the grounds of the historic Grangeville Masonic Lodge.


Lorenzo Dow Oak, panoramic view, study 5

Threatening rain or not, we hit the road and arrived at Grangeville just as the first drops began to fall. I made a flurry of photos, trying to hold my baseball cap over my camera’s wide angle lens to shield it from rain, with a fair amount of success. Since August 2015 when I first photographed the Lorenzo Dow Oak, the Grangeville Masonic Lodge members have cleared away the undergrowth that obscured the trunk and main limbs of the old oak,  revealing the full profile of this huge tree. At 35 ft. 8 in. in girth, this little-known oak is tied with the Randall Oak in New Roads as the second largest and oldest of live oaks in Louisiana.


Lorenzo Dow Oak, infrared black and white study 1

An interesting side note about this tree that I discovered after my 2015 visit: The Lorenzo Dow Oak was registered tree #261 with the Live Oak Society (LOS). This was probably sometime after 1963, when the LOS became active again after a dormant period of about 16-17 years. Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens acted as secretary of the Society until his death in November 1938. At that time, his list of member trees included 57 oaks. In 1945, Stanley C. Arthur, executive director of the Louisiana State Museum, assumed responsibility for record keeping, admission of new tree members and continued measurements of tree growth.

In the  Live Oak Society Bulletin, a hand-typed newsletter he produced, Mr. Arthur added another 62 oaks to Dr. Stephens’ registry, including their names, locations, measurements and sponsors. This brought the total of member oaks to 119. In that list, there is an oak named the Dr. E.O. Powers Oak, also located in Grangeville, LA. So, it’s possible the Lorenzo Dow Oak was in the first 119 oaks on the Society registry under a different name and with a different sponsor but was renamed and re-registered 20 years later.

In 1957, the Louisiana Garden Club Federation assumed record keeping responsibility for the Society; and since then the secretary/chairmanship and record keeping responsibilities have passed on continually, slowing adding to the now 8,000-plus roster of senior and junior member live oaks.

The “Lone Oak” – visiting an old friend


The “Lone Oak” or Maryland Farms Oak, St. Gabriel, Louisiana, circa 1984

Sometime around 1984, when I had just begun using a 4″ x 5″ view camera and black-and-white sheet film to photograph live oaks, I stumbled across an oak with a beautiful, iconic shape that I called the “lone oak.” I didn’t know if it had a name and so just dubbed it lone oak because that’s pretty much how it had grown for who knows how many years – standing in the middle of several hundred acres of grazing pasture, downriver from the White Castle ferry landing near St. Gabriel. It’s one of the trees that I’ve visited and revisited over three decades – always looking to make an even more accurate representation of its personality and to document the progression of its life over time.

It’s a very old and very distinctive oak, with a near perfect mushroom shape – just the way you’d sketch it if someone asked you to draw a live oak tree. It’s the kind of iconic shape that makes Southern live oaks distinguishable from other trees. Its girth is approxmately 25’-6” and its crown spread is nearly 125 feet.

I liked the tree’s shape so much that I’ve used a small silhouette of one of my photographs as a sort of logo for my photography letterhead.  The images I’ve made of the Lone Oak have been well-liked by others as well. It was included in two separate books: Louisiana Live Oak Lore by Ethelyn Orso and Folklife in Louisiana through Photography by Frank DeCaro, and several individuals have purchased prints.


Lone oak with sun behind cloud cover, circa spring 1993

To photograph the old tree, I had to hop a barbed wire fence surrounding the pasture with my camera and tripod and then wade through shin-high grass to get within an intimate distance. As is my usual practice when I visit a tree, I will walk a large circle around its perimeter to view it from all sides, looking for a new or different perspective that would emphasize some distinguishing quality. Though with this oak, I quickly settled on one perspective on its east side that seemed to me like the tree was “facing me.”

Some days, I had to wind my way through grazing cows that were scattered about the field in which the tree stood.  On hot humid summer days, those same cows would gather in the shade under the oak – one day in particular there must’ve been upward of 60 to 70 cows lounging in the shadow under its limbs.


Lone oak with cows taking shelter, circa summer 1991

I visited the lone oak both early and late in the day, comparing the quality of morning and evening light, though I found that cloudy days, when harsh contrasting shadows were minimized, were my favorite. I also visited in different seasons to compare the density of the foliage and see which I felt made for a better image. Sometimes when the weather was less than optimum for a photograph, I would just sit in the oak’s shade (when cows weren’t around) to feel how this place and this tree felt compared with others.


Lone oak with Brahma bull (near the lower left corner), circa fall 1994

On one visit, instead of the usual grazing cows there was a small group of maybe 20 Brahma bulls lounging around in the field. The funny part of this story was that I didn’t realize they were bulls until I was in the middle of them with my large 4×5 view camera on a tripod and bull-fighter-sized dark cloth draped over my shoulder. Luckily, since they were all bulls with no female cows to protect, they didn’t seem the least interested in me and my camera.  But, believe me, I made the picture and left as quickly as I could…


Lone oak with grave headstones, spring 2016

Over the years, I’ve revisited the lone oak many times. At one point around the mid- 1990s, I even researched who owned the land and learned it was the property of the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center. I wrote a letter to the head of the facility suggesting they register the oak with the Live Oak Society and got a pleasant positive reply.

Eventually they did register the oak (now it’s named the Maryland Farms Oak) and around 2001, it was enclosed within a fence and became the centerpiece of a cemetery for prison inmates whose bodies were unclaimed by family after their death.

This month was my first visit to the lone oak since the late 1990s and the first time I’d seen the old tree since it became the centerpiece for the new prison cemetery.  It reminded me of a paragraph I wrote for a recent article in the Country Roads magazine:  “In South Louisiana, live oaks are heritage, heirlooms, and history all rolled into one. On the old land maps, oaks mark where one property line ended and another began. They were a point on the horizon at which to aim the blade of a plow or the nose of a tractor. They mark the intersections of crossroads where back roads cross and provide a shady spot for neighbors to park their pickups, pass a plastic thermos cup of chicory coffee, and discuss the weather. Duels were fought and honor won or lost under their bowed limbs. People picnic under them, get married under them, dance the two-step under them, and, finally when the music ends, are laid to rest alongside their massive roots.”


Lone Oak and cemetery, color study, spring 2016

Besides the rows of headstones, little else had changed  about the lone oak on my recent visit, except it has an entirely different ambiance now that it’s part of a cemetery (the Lone Oak Cemetery). There’s a new sense of peace that I didn’t remember on past visits. Stop by and see it someday. It even has its own website.

Revisiting the Seven Sisters Oak

Though I’ve had a couple of other blog posts in the works, I couldn’t leave the 30-something project behind without a nod to the Seven Sisters Oak, the current president of the Live Oak Society and the national champion live oak tree species in the American Forests’ Big Tree Registry. And also a 30-something oak…

The Seven Sisters Oak – Live Oak Society President and Champion Tree of the Southern live oak species in American Forest’s Champion Tree List.

Cyndi and I took a drive from Bayou Lafourche to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain recently to revisit the Seven Sisters Oak, to make some new photographs for the blog and say hello to an old friend.  The sky was overcast, making it possible a good day to photograph in the shadows of a towering old oak.  The recent rains had turned the resurrection fern a lush bright green. (We also made a stop in Ponchatoula to stock up on local strawberries and visit a couple of other local oaks including the Abbot Paul Schaueble Oak.

While visiting the tree, we met the current owners, John and Mary Jane Becker. They were welcoming and informative about their term as caretakers of this massive oak (almost 40 feet in circumference).  The Seven Sister’s Oak shades much of the front yard of the Becker’s home in the historic neighborhood of Lewisburg, near the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, in Mandeville.  Mrs. Becker remarked how the old oak was wearing an abundance of new celery green flowers (catkins) when we visited, one indication that the centuries-old tree is still healthy and vital.  She also said that last year the oak produced a bumper crop of acorns.


Seven Sisters Oak, view toward the Becker’s home.

If you missed our previous blog post on the Seven Sisters, I’ll recap some of its known history (though what we know about the oak dates back less than 100 years and some estimates of the tree’s age put it to between 600 and 1,000 years old).

The Seven Sisters Oak is actually the second live oak to take the status of President of the Live Oak Society.  It replaced the Society’s first president, the Locke Breaux Oak, after its death from air and water pollution (see my previous posts about the Locke Breaux Oak for details).

For years, the eligibility of the Seven Sisters Oak as a society member tree was disputed.  It was argued to be several separate trees growing together rather than a single tree. Then in 1976, after inspection by federal foresters, the multiple tree trunks were found to have a single root system.  It was accepted into the Society—registered (#200)—and in time, was appointed the new Society President, based on its girth, limb spread, and height.

(A short sidebar.  From other sources, I see this is an ongoing argument among tree-measuring folks—whether the circumference of a multi-trunk oak can be compared equally to a single-trunk tree. I take a neutral position on this topic. To me, they’re all very old oaks, and as such deserve to be considered as cultural, historic, and environmental treasures, regardless of the shape or number of trunks.)


The oak tree’s first sponsor was the Doby family who owned the property on which the tree is located at that time (the 1930s). Mrs. Carole Hendry Doby was one of seven sisters in her family and the tree was named originally named “Doby’s Seven Sisters.” The oak was re-registered (#697) by its next owners, Mr. and Mrs. Milton Seiler.  The Seiler’s renamed the tree simply “The Seven Sisters.”


Seven Sisters Oak, view from outside of the oak’s canopy, showing new green catkins.

According to the American Forests’ Big Tree Registry, the Seven Sisters Oak has a crown spread of 139 feet, a circumference of 467 inches (approximately thirty-nine feet) and a height of sixty-eight feet. Its age has been estimated to be somewhere between 500 and 1200 years old. The current measurement is closer to 480 + inches or 40 feet.