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.
Every old oak in Louisiana has stories connected to it. LSU’s oaks are no exception. Louisiana State University was established in 1860 and construction began at the current location in the early 1920s.
Steele Burden and the planting of LSU’s oaks—Ollie Bryce Steele Burden (known simply as Steele) grew up in Baton Rouge and spent weekends on his family’s 600-acre farm, Windrush Plantation (now Burden Gardens). As a young man Steel traveled to Europe, and was inspired by the gardens he visited there, As an adult, he moved onto the Windrush property permanently and began his experiments with garden design, creating a small formal garden there.
Though he never earned a degree in landscape architecture, Steele took courses at LSU before he began working as a gardener and landscaper for the City of Baton Rouge. In the late 1920s, he designed plantings for Baton Rouge’s City Park and later became its superintendent of gardens. His work on City Park drew the attention and admiration of administrators at LSU and he was invited in 1932 to work for the university as the first grounds caretaker and landscape architect.
From its beginnings, LSU’s campus was envisioned to be a park-like setting whose natural beauty might inspire learning and scholarship. The physical layout was first devised by the Olmstead Brothers, sons of Frederick Law Olmstead, whose landscape architecture firm designed Central Park in New York, Audubon Park in New Orleans, several national parks, and other notable university campuses.
Since the Olmsted brothers were strictly landscape architects, German architect Theodore Link was hired in 1921 to design the buildings for the new campus. He adapted the Olmsteds’ layout and added his own ideas to the specific placement and design of structures. Some of the first buildings to be constructed were those around the Quadrangle.
Steele was given a free hand, but a tight budget, to transform primarily empty agricultural acreage into a pleasant green space. He began planting what he referred to as “street trees” along campus thoroughfares and around the first buildings—the parade grounds and around the Quadrangle complex.
These trees were hearty native stock that Steele knew would provide the most long-term benefit for the campus—primarily southern live oaks (Quercus virginiana), interspersed with southern magnolia trees (Magnolia grandiflora), and pine trees (pinus species) due to the compatibility of these trees. Steel obtained many of these trees with the help of E.A. McIlhenny’s Avery Island nursery and planted them based on his “intuitive” approach to garden design.
Historic aerial photographs of the campus show that the Quadrangle oaks were well-established by February of 1938. That would make the earliest oaks more than 90 years of age today, since McIlhenny’s young oaks were ordinarily 5 to 10 years of age when purchased.
Today, LSU has more than 1300 live oaks on campus comprising what has become an “urban forest”
Supposedly the oldest oak on the LSU campus grows between the Manship School of Mass Communications and Hodges Hall. It predates the earliest oak plantings by Steele Burden and may be well over 200 years old.
I first visited and photographed the John Hudson Oak in late 2015 while searching for live oaks in the 29′ to 30′-plus circumference size in the Ascension Parish area. The John Hudson Oak is located in Prairieville, LA at the Hudson House, a beautiful historic family home that’s been in the Hudson family for several generations.
The Hudson Oak is the largest and most impressive of numerous old live oaks on the grounds. It has long sweeping limbs that reach to the ground on three sides. Mrs. Ellen Hudson Waller says that this and several other oaks on her property are Live Oak Society members but has no idea exactly how old this oak might be.
I returned to rephotograph and remeasure the old oak in November 2020, five years from my first visit. The oak had grown 5 inches and now measures 29′ 10″ in circumference. But how old is an oak of this size? In all honesty, one can only make an educated guess.
I’ve heard from several arborists that live oaks grow fastest in their first 100 to 150 years then slow down during the next 100 to 150 years. Then, supposedly they grow even slower during the next 100 to 150 years.
Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens, the founder of the Live Oak Society, often revisited many of the oldest oaks to which he was acquainted. He remeasured them over time and kept records of their growth rate. As a result, Dr. Stephens believed that if you could determine the average annual growth rate for a specific tree, you might get a closer estimate of its true age. Stephens estimated that if an oak had a girth of 17 feet or more, that it was at least 100 years of age.
However, Edwin A. “Ned” McIlhenny (originator of Tabasco pepper sauce), wrote in a letter to Dr. Stephens in the 1930s that he had seen oaks grown in the thick forest at Avery Island that were as little as four feet in girth but had anywhere from 300 to 500 annual growth rings. According to McIlhenny, “A tree grown alone, under ideal conditions, will develop ten times as fast as a tree crowded in the forest under unfavorable conditions.”
So, who knows how old any live oak may actually be. Who can tell today what conditions existed around an old oak 100, 200, or 300 years ago and whether it was growing alone or competing for resources with other trees? It’s likely that any live oak that was growing before Europeans arrived was in a forested setting. Though, some oaks growing along bayous, may have been growing alone. Who can tell today if land was cleared around an oak by settlers, or if they planted the oak after they arrived. One can only speculate. As I’ve noted in other blog posts, when the first Europeans began to arrive in Louisiana in the 1700s, they often chose homesites near old oaks for the protection that the trees offered from winds and weather.Yet, many others planted oak trees near their homes for the same reasons.
All I can say for sure is that the Hudson Oak has grown an inch a year in girth over the past five years. So, if its growth rate has been a consistent one inch per year during most of its lifetime, it would today be close to 350 years of age. This is, at best, only an educated guess. If you consider the observations of E.A. McIlhenny, the size of a live oak may only be known for certain by the Creator or someone with a time machine…