Revisiting the Two Cleveland Oaks

 

Grover_Cleveland_oak

Grover Cleveland Oak, Jefferson Island, 2015

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. After performing in New Orleans in 1870, Jefferson bought a property previously called Orange Island (for a large grove of orange trees growing there at the time). He was an avid fisherman, outdoorsman, hunter, and painter.

In his role as an 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 and toured the New Iberia area. From this visit, two ancient oaks, one on Jefferson Island and one on Avery Island, were named in the President’s honor.

Grover-Cleveland-Oak-2

Grover Cleveland Oak, Jefferson Island, 2014

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—to the left is the entrance to the gardens, gift shop, and restaurant; to the right is the entrance to the Jefferson mansion driveway. Over the fence and behind small trees lives the Grover Cleveland Oak. In the last year, this venerable oak lost several major limbs, and though it’s a shadow of its former beauty, it’s still a grand old tree.

Cleveland_oak_bench

Cleveland Oak limbs and bench, Jefferson Island, 2013

Jefferson Island has at least two other oaks on the Live Oak Society registry. Visitors may also enjoy the Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Café Jefferson, and stay overnight at the bed & breakfast cottages.

SONY DSC

Grover Cleveland Oak, Avery Island, 2014

The Grover Cleveland Oak in Jungle Gardens at Avery Island today has the largest girth of any other oak on the island at almost 25 feet. It was one of three oaks on Avery Island that were on the list of original charter members to the Live Oak Society. Besides Jungle Gardens and Bird City, visitors can enjoy the McInhenny Tabasco Museum, the Tabasco Restaurant 1868, and a guided tour of the Tabasco production process.

Cleveland Oak_Avery Is #4

Grover Cleveland Oak with sign, Avery Island, 2017

In Ethelyn Orso’s book, Louisiana Live Oak Lore, she relates a funny anecdote about President Cleveland’s 1892 trip to visit Joseph Jefferson at Jefferson Island. While there to hunt and fish, Cleveland asked to speak to some former slaves and see their dwellings. Upon entering one black woman’s home he saw a framed picture of himself hung on the wall. Overwhelmed with pride, he asked the woman if she knew who that was in the picture? After a moment’s reflection, she replied that she wasn’t sure, but she thought it was “John the Baptist.” Cleveland was devastated. Later, he denied that she had responded this way to his question. Later still, he denied that he had ever come to Louisiana.

Coming next… The Twentieth Century Oaks at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Campus. 

 

 

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