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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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 and 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

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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.

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Lone oak with daytime moon, circa spring 1993

To photograph the old tree, I had to hop the 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.

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Lone oak with cows, 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.

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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…

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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 the head of the facility suggesting they register the oak with the Live Oak Society and got a pleasant 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.”

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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 and the nearby Abbot 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.

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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.)

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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.”

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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.

The Abbot Paul Schaueble Oak – near Covington, LA

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Abbot Paul Schaueble Oak

While traveling to Mandeville from Ponchatoula, we 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 (#2464), 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.

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Abbot Paul Schaueble Oak, study 2

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 rains, 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.

The Marvin McGraw and Mr. Mike oaks

It looks like I’ll be revisiting the 30-something project on and off during 2016, mainly to add a few “stragglers” – oaks that I missed in my original list of possible 30-something-sized trees or others that have turned up since my last entry.  In this post, I’ll feature examples of both.

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Marvin McGraw Memorial Oak, study 1

The Marvin McGraw Memorial Oak – This old oak was on the first list I put together of Live Oak Society members that could be in the 30-something category. It is located in Reserve, on the east bank of the Mississippi River in St. John the Baptist Parish. It was registered by Maxie and Pete McGraw (#1428) with an estimated girth of 31 feet (my measurement was 27’-6”). I was able to hone in on the tree’s exact location through help from Maxie and Pete’s brother, Marvin, who is the current director of marketing and public relations for the Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge.

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Marvin McGraw Memorial Oak, black-and-white study

He recalled how when he was a child the old oak tree stood in a grassy pasture in the company of grazing cows and horses. His father Marvin, the oak’s namesake, used to tell the kids that the old oak “was already a large tree when Columbus discovered America.” Marvin (the son) also remembered that there was a very old graveyard near the oak where they would find gravestones and wrought-iron crosses with inscriptions written in French.

When I visited the oak, the graveyard had long ago disappeared. And over the years, the open pasture shrunk steadily as it was parceled up into lawns. I found the oak still growing in a small side yard sandwiched between two homes at the end of a quiet residential street.

The Mike Oak – The Mike Oak is located outside of the entrance gate to Oaklawn Manor, which is just off Irish Bend Road and a few miles above Franklin. On the entrance road onto Oaklawn Drive, the oak is in the lot to the left of the driveway that turns right into the Oaklawn Manor gate house and home.  It is not the most lovely of the many oaks in the grove lining Oaklawn Drive, or of the oaks on the Manor grounds, but it is the largest, with a girth in 2015 of 30 feet.

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The Mike Oak, study 1, Oaklawn Manor near Franklin, LA

The land that became Oaklawn Manor Plantation was purchased in 1809 by Irish-born attorney Alexander Porter and it was his Irish ancestry that gave this stretch along Bayou Teche the name “Irish Bend.”Porter served on the Louisiana Supreme Court and also as U.S. Senator representing Louisiana. After his time in the U.S. Senate, Porter retired to Irish Bend and built the Greek Revival home near Franklin that he named Oaklawn Manor Plantation.

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Mike Oak, infrared study

After a series of owners and renovations in the 1960s, the Manor was purchased in 1986 by Murphy “Mike” Foster, Jr. and his wife Alice and underwent another restoration. Foster was elected 53rd governor of Louisiana in 1995 and still owns and lives at Oaklawn Manor today.  The home and grounds are open to the public for tours. Call ahead for tour hours (337-828-0434).

The Mike Oak was registered (#3447 in the Live Oak Society registry) by Mr. Foster and his wife.  I’ve met with Mr. Foster on a few occasions when photographing the oaks at Oaklawn. He even gave me a tour of the grounds on his golf cart to point out the many old live oaks on his property.

As a side note, ex-governor Foster is an oak preservationist at heart. He realizes the importance of this iconic tree to the cultural heritage and ecology of the state and has in the past interceded to stop the removal of many old oaks along the Grand Chenier highway (state Hwy. 82). This highway parallels the southern edge of the state between Pecan Island and Cameron. The chenier oaks, though weather-beaten and bent, help slow erosion of the delicate coastal ridges throughout the “Chenier Plain,” an area extending roughly from Sabine Lake (west) to Vermillion Bay (east) along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast.

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Mike Oak, color study 2