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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Mr Mike Oak #1

Mike Oak, color study 2


Ascension Parish – The Martin Oak, the John Hudson Oak

Ascension Parish and Upper River Road

Ascension Parish has always been a sort of blank spot on my live oak radar. Before I began this 30-something series, I was unaware of the number of live oaks that live there. So, I’ve been surprised and delighted to have located several old and beautiful trees that have led otherwise low-profile lives in this historic parish.

The Martin Oak study 1 – 35' 6" in circumference

The Martin Oak, Gonzales, LA – 37′ 8″ in circumference

I’m not sure if I’ve emphasized enough in my earlier blogs how rare it is that 30-something-foot girth oaks have survived all of the changes that have taken place on the Louisiana landscape in the past 300 years. In her invaluable reference book, Louisiana Live Oak Lore, Ethelyn G. Orso describes the process of “live oaking,” a fairly common practice in the past in which woodsmen would cut live oaks and sell the wood to supply the wooden ship industries of Britain, France, Spain, and the United States.

The Martin Oak trunk and burls

The Martin Oak trunk and burls

Here’s an excerpt from her book on the subject:

“As early as 1709, shipwrights recognized that the near-impenetrable wood (of the live oak) was perfect for timbers and ‘knees’ for vessels. ‘Knees’ were the angular sections of wood taken from the joints between tree limbs and trunks. Such natural joints were stronger than any artificial joints made by shipwrights, and braced the sides of the ships… For the European governments that controlled Louisiana in that early colonial period, live oak wood was the state’s most prized natural resource.

Having practically deforested the European continent in search of the indispensable oak wood for their fleets, British, French, and Spanish rulers looked with greedy eyes to the vast expanses of live oak forests in the southern parts of what would become the United States. Those European governments that gained control of the part of ‘West Florida’ that today is eastern Louisiana claimed the live oak forests as state-owned resources. That led, by the mid-1770s, to a thriving illicit trade in live oak wood between the inhabitants of the area and whoever would pay for the poached wood. In 1811, after Louisiana had become a part of the United States, Louisiana Governor William C. Claiborne began communicating with the secretary of the navy in Washington, DC, and in 1817 an act was passed giving the president of the U.S. the authority to reserve lands with live oak forests for use by the U.S. Navy.”

It was hard times for large live oaks in those early years of the colony and the oaks that survived the wooden-ship era were still faced with the widespread clearing of lands for farming and ranching as well as eventual urban development. So, when I express respect and even awe at the few oaks that have managed to survive (and flourish in some cases) after 300+ years of cutting and clearing, you can understand why.  Now, on to the 30-something oaks of Ascension Parish:


The Martin Oak, vertical view of trunk

The Martin Tree—(See photos above as well) #1405 on the Live Oak Society registry, this tree was registered with a circumference of 34 feet by Ms. Delba E. Martin. She was born in 1906 and passed on in 1995. With help from the Ascension parish assessor’s office, I was able to locate the property that was once owned by Ms. Martin and the tree is still there.

The shape of the tree trunk is similar to the Rebekah Oak and others—it has a very large burled lower trunk that tapers above 5–6 ft. from the ground. Generally, this is above the 4–4.5 ft. line where one would measure the girth, but with trees like this, I take multiple measurements above and below the 4.5 ft. line and make an average measurement. My estimated girth of this oak is approximately 37’-8″ and still growing.

John Hudson Oak, 29'-8" – Prairieville, LA

John Hudson Oak, #6350 – 29′-6″ – Prairieville, LA

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 John Hudson Oak is the largest and most impressive of numerous live oaks on the grounds. It has a lovely sweeping canopy that reaches to the ground on three sides. Mrs. Ellen Hudson Waller says that several other oaks on her property are Live Oak Society members.

John Hudson Oak, black-and-white study 1

John Hudson Oak, black-and-white study 1

Hudson Oaks; black-and-white infrared study of two other Live Oak Society trees on Hudson property.

The Joseph Romano and Angelle Romano Oaks; Hudson House, Prairieville, LA.

In my next post, I’ll include the rest of the Ascension Parish list of oaks…

Louisiana’s oldest oaks – older than America

Oaks with 30-something feet girth
In 2015, I marked 30 years that of photographing live oaks of Louisiana and 10 years since I began the 100 Oaks Project (documenting the 100 oldest oaks in Louisiana). Because of these milestones, I decided to devote 2015 to tracking down the very oldest living live oaks in Louisiana—those trees with girths of 30 feet or more. I was already familiar with a few of the more well-known oaks in this size range, but most were still on my longer list of “trees yet to find.”

Stonaker Oak – near New Roads, LA; 29 ft. 6 in; #16 on original Live Oak Society inductee list.
Stonaker Oak – near New Roads, LA; 29 ft. 6 in; #16 on original Live Oak Society inductee list.

To compile my list, I included all Society member trees with a circumference of 26’ feet or greater when registered. I knew from experience and from discussions with arborists that mature oaks have an average growth rate of 1” to 1.5” per year. In a half-century, a healthy live oak can easily grow three to four feet in circumference. This narrowed my search to fewer than 30 oaks in Louisiana that could potentially be in the 30-foot girth range.

Before America was America—According to several Louisiana arborists I consulted, oaks of this size are probably between 400 and 500 years of age (add another 100 years or more to this estimate for those oaks with a girth greater than 35 feet). That means these live oaks were likely growing before Europeans settled this continent (the earliest colony was established in 1565 by the Spanish in St. Augustine, Florida; Jamestown, Virginia, was established in 1607). Some were quite possibly growing before the name “America” was first used in print in 1507 as a designation for this continent—in other words, Before America was America.

Seven Sisters color 4_7x13 copy
The Seven Sisters Oak, Lewisburg/Mandeville – National Champion

The 30-something club—One New Orleans arborist I contacted about a tree’s location jokingly suggested I call my list the “30-something club.” So, I’ve incorporated that into the title of this blog entry as well and have included in this list oaks that are almost 30 feet in girth (29′-6″ or greater). To me, these venerable oaks should be recognized as cultural and historical landmarks and deserve a more significant place in public awareness—and even some minimal protection that would allow them to live to whatever ripe old age a live oak can live.

Live oak protection—Tragically, several of the oldest oaks on the Society’s registry have died, fallen off the grid of public awareness or even been removed. It’s important to note that it’s only through public awareness and human interest that a tree’s survival is secured. Currently, there are no state laws in Louisiana to protect historic or heritage trees and only spotty local ordinances that offer any protection from human removal.  I’ll cover this in detail in a future blog entry.

In the next few blog entries, I’ll be documenting my search during 2015 to find these 30-something live oaks. Here are the trees in order of size:

  1. Seven Sisters Oak – Lewisburg / Mandeville; 39′-10″
  2. Randall Oak – New Roads; 35′-8″
  3. Edna Szymoniak Oak – Hammond; 35′-6″
  4. Lorenzo Dow Oak – Grangeville; 35′-5″
  5. La Belle Coline Oak – Between Sunset and Carencro; 34’+
  6. The Governor’s Oak – Baton Rouge; 33′-3″
  7. Lastrapes Oak (Seven Brothers Oak) – Washington; 32′-3″ (largest section)
  8. Boudreaux Friendship Oak – Scott; 31′-10″
  9. Lagarde Oak – Luling; 30′-11″
  10. Mays Oak – Near Rosedale; 30′-11″
  11. Blanchet Oak – Lafayette; 30′-7″
  12. Grosse Tete Oak – Bayou Grosse Tete; 30′-2″
  13. Etienne de Bore’ Oak – Audubon Park, New Orleans; 30′
  14. Grenier Oak – Near Thibodaux; 29′-9″
  15. Josephine A. Stewart Oak – Vacherie; 29′-11″
  16. St. John’s Cathedral Oak – Lafayette; 29′-6″
  17. Stonaker Oak – New Roads; 29′-6″
  18. The John Hudson Oak – Prairieville, LA; 29′-6″

(This list has been updated as of December 2020)

As I continue locating and measuring additional oaks through this year, I may expand this 30-something list, but as of September, these are the oaks I’ve personally measured and confirmed to be 29′-6″ or larger.

NOTE:  I’ve found a few oaks with girths stated to be larger than 29 feet on the Live Oak Society registry. However, when I measured them, their sizes were smaller. I suspect they were simply mismeasured. Those oaks are not on this list but will be mentioned in my blog entries that follow because they are still very old trees and fit into my larger 100 oldest oaks list.

A bit of background—For those readers who are new to this blog, my wife Cyndi and I  began the 100 Oaks Project after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept across Louisiana in 2005.  We started with the 43 original inductee trees listed by Dr. Edwin L. Stephens in a 1934 article he wrote for the Louisiana Conservation Review titled “In Louisiana, I saw a Live Oak Growing” (a PDF copy of that article is contained in the “Pages” section of this blog).

Dr. Stephen’s original intent was to establish an organization “to promote the culture, distribution, and appreciation of the live oak.” Members were originally limited to oaks that were at least 100 years of age, determined by a circumference of 17 feet or more, though he revised these requirements to allow registration of “junior-league” oaks with a minimum circumference of eight feet.