Jefferson College Oak, Convent, LA

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Jefferson College Oak, view looking upriver toward the property line

I recently located two historic live oaks that are in the 30-foot-plus girth size and have never been registered with the Live Oak Society.  This blog entry focuses on the one whose history I was able to partially piece together.

The first oak, which I’ll call the “Jefferson College Oak” for the purpose of this blog, has a circumference of 32 feet 1 inch, and is located on the upriver property line of the Manresa House of Retreats, located in Convent, Louisiana, on the east bank Mississippi River road (Hwy. 44).

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Black-and-white infrared photo of oak, view toward River

Convent, originally named Baron when it was first settled between 1722 and 1729, has been the parish seat of St. James the Baptist Parish since 1869. It’s an old historic town that today has only a few hundred residents.

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Oak – view toward Manresa Retreat grounds

Manresa was originally founded as the “College of Jefferson” in 1830 by a group of wealthy French Creoles, headed by Louisiana’s ninth governor, Andre B. Roman.  These founders wished to provide an intellectual foundation for their sons and heirs and so the College of Jefferson reflected their views and values toward architecture, gentlemanly instruction, and secular liberal arts studies. These wealthy Creole founders’ views mirrored those found in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Paris.* They were not the same views as those in the American colonies of the northeast. In the words of the founders, they wished to establish an institution of higher learning “where our children will find the means of completing their course of studies without leaving their native land.”


Library of Congress 1938 photo of Jefferson College’s main building

Jefferson College was chartered in 1831 and opened its doors in February of 1834 with 62 students, comprised primarily of the sons of wealthy Louisiana planters. In 1842, the main building was destroyed by fire and though rebuilt, the college never reached its potential. It closed in 1848 and the buildings were sold at a sheriff’s sale. It reopened again briefly between 1853 and 1856 as “Louisiana College.” Then, in 1860, when on the verge of collapse, it was purchased and saved by Louisiana’s wealthiest sugarcane planter, Valcour Aime, who had supported the school from its beginnings.

Aime had a chapel added on the downriver side of the main building, supposedly to honor his only son, Gabriel, who had died of yellow fever in 1854. Between 1862 and 1864, the school was occupied by Federal troops, and in 1864, Aime transferred the property to the Marist Fathers of France, who reopened and renamed the school, “St. Mary’s College of Jefferson” that same year. It operated until 1927. Then, in 1931, the Jesuit Fathers of New Orleans purchased the college and renamed it Manresa House of Retreats, a non-denominational Jesuit retreat center for men.

*Much of the information about Jefferson College referred to here was obtained from the website, “America’s Lost Colleges” 





The Twentieth Century Oaks, Lafayette

20th century oaks 1a copy On New Year’s Day 1901, Dr. Edwin Stephens, the first president of Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), planted 18 young live oak trees near the campus entrance, at the intersection of Johnston Street and University Avenue. Stephens named them the Twentieth Century Oaks since they were planted in the first year of the new century.

Stephens was only 27 years old in 1901 when he dedicated the Twentieth Century Oaks. He was one of the youngest college presidents in the country. Yet, even as a young man, he had a clear vision for the new SLI campus and a plan to transform 25 acres of empty sugarcane fields into a landscape fitting for a respected institute of higher learning.

20th century oaks_9477In 1934, Stephens authored an article for the Louisiana Conservation Review that launched the Live Oak Society – a unique organization whose members are all live oak trees. The society’s goal was to promote the appreciation and conservation of senior members of the live oak species (Quercus virginiana)

The organization’s original by-laws stated that “annual dues” of 25 acorns were to be collected from each member tree. These acorns were to be planted on the Southwestern Institute’s farm (near Lafayette) to provide the campus with young live oaks grown from the hardy genetic stock of society’s centenarian member trees.

Today, more than 100 years later, ten of the Twentieth Century Oaks are still standing, providing cooling shade for pedestrians near Girard Hall. According to UL Lafayette’s grounds manager, Mike Hess, the Century Oaks are among more than 250 live oaks that he cares for on campus. Hess feels that these stately oaks are ambassadors of our Louisiana culture.

Stephens statue_9487In 2014, a life-sized bronze statue of Dr. Stephens was erected near the Century Oaks and Girard Hall in honor of his 38-year tenure as president and his legacy as the founder of the Live Oak Society. The statue, standing more than six feet tall holds an acorn in its right hand, symbolic of Stephens’ connection to Louisiana’s iconic live oaks.

(This story also appears on the Lafayette Tourism website.)

Revisiting the Two Cleveland Oaks



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, 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 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.


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.

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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. 



A live oak tree owner’s manual

For this brief owner’s guide to live oak care, I consulted with professional arborist,  horticulturist, and instructor, Jim Foret, who has extensive experience with old live oaks in the New Iberia area and teaches at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I asked him to address the importance of this distinctive tree species for Louisiana and to focus his comments on its care and conservation. I’ve distilled his guidance into three guiding principles for live oak owners and caretakers.

Front yard oak 4_CoulonRoots and soil—It takes room to grow a fine tree, so don’t crowd your oak. Few people grasp just how large the functioning root system of a live oak really is—your oak’s roots do not stop at the end of its branches but generally extend one-and-a-half to two times the full spread of its crown.

Caring for your oak tree begins with creating the best conditions for a healthy root zone and lower trunk. Every square foot of undisturbed, uncompacted soil in an oak’s root zone is GOLDEN to the health of the tree. Caring for the “lower trunk” means keeping the above-ground root flare clear of leaves and soil that can eventually accumulate and weaken the root system.

Oaks don’t like soggy or compacted soil. They may tolerate it for a short time, but these two conditions block oxygen in the soil that an oak needs to thrive, and compacted soil makes it harder for oak roots to grow. Eventually, these conditions can literally smother a tree.

Balance—Live oaks are amazingly strong, within limits. The Creator designed them to grow in forests but people have stripped the forests and left them often standing alone or in groves where they can grow much wider, with multiple major limbs. These long spreading branches can become massive and sometimes could be poorly attached to the main trunk structure.

A balanced shape can improve an oak’s life span. Prune oak limbs (ideally when they’re young) to avoid imbalance, lopsidedness, and excessive limb length and weight that might literally pull the tree apart as it grows. Prune during the dormant winter months when the oak is less active, and don’t remove more than 10 to 15 percent of branch growth a year to prevent over-stressing the tree.

Leave the leaves—Your oak’s leaves, as with other plants, convert light (radiant energy) to chemical energy. Every leaf is important and necessary to your oak’s vitality. Leaves on the outside of the canopy are designed to absorb bright direct sunlight, while leaves growing inside the oak’s canopy are designed to extract the most energy from filtered light. Both types of leaves are crucial for your oak’s health. So prune carefully and cautiously and leave the healthy limbs and leaves on your tree.

If you’re fortunate enough to live in the company of live oaks, your life is blessed. And if you don’t live near a live oak, I strongly urge you to plant one, or maybe two or three.

Revisiting the St. John Cathedral Oak – Lafayette

A Brief Review of The Live Oak Society…
In 1934, Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens
, first president of Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) proposed the creation of an organization made up entirely of the largest and oldest live oak trees in Louisiana. His vision was that the organization’s membership would include trees whose size and age made them significant cultural and natural resources, worth identifying and preserving for future generations to enjoy. From his orientation as a scholar and writer, Stephens recognized the deeper truth of this Southern icon—the live oak symbolically reflects the most distinctive characteristics of the cultures and people that settled this rich alluvial area:

From his orientation as a scholar and writer, Stephens recognized the deeper truth of this Southern icon—the live oak symbolically reflects the most distinctive characteristics of the cultures and people that settled this rich alluvial area: strength of character, forbearance, longevity, and a hearty nature.

Beginning with just 43 inductee oaks in 1934, the Live Oak Society’s roster of member oaks now counts more than 8300 registered trees across 14 southeastern U.S. states. In the Lafayette area, there were 12 oaks among the original 43 charter members. Today, more than a thousand oaks in the Lafayette area are listed on the society’s registry.

The Cathedral Oak – Lafayette  

Cathedral Oak with original fence

Photo of Cathedral Oak by Dr. Stephens, circa the early 1930s

The St. John Cathedral Oak is probably the most well known live oak in the Lafayette area. It is the second vice president of the Live Oak Society and was one of the society’s 43 original member trees. Some estimates place the tree’s age at more than 450 years old. The distinguished oak is located on the grounds of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on St. John Street in old downtown Lafayette.

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St. John Cathedral Oak and cathedral, late afternoon

In 1821, Jean Mouton, an Acadian refugee, and owner of a large plantation named Vermilionville, donated the land on which the oak grows to the church parish. According to the cathedral’s website, the first pastor (Michel Bernard Barriere) may have requested this specific site from Mouton because of the towering live oak tree located there.

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Cathedral Oak, Sunday afternoon light

According to Dr. Stephens, the oak was measured in 1929 with a circumference of 19 feet. In May 2008, local arborist Jim Foret measured the oak. The circumference was 28 feet 8 inches, it was 126 feet high, and had a crown spread of 210 feet. In May 2015, Foret measured the circumference again at 29 feet 6 inches. Foret says that old live oaks ordinarily grow much slower than this, but the soil around the Cathedral Oak received significant nurturing in the past two decades and that may have caused the growth surge. In the 1990s, a parking lot was moved away from the tree and in 1995 a protective fence was added to reduce foot traffic and protect the tree’s extensive root system.

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Cathedral Oak, morning light

The Cathedral Oak was well known to Dr. Stephens and he posed for several photographs in front of the oak during his tenure at SLI. He and his wife Beverly made frequent driving trips through the Acadiana back roads in search of notable live oaks. To their visiting guests, he was known for his “Live Oak Trail” tours where he would share some of his favorite old trees and groves across the Acadiana countryside. The Cathedral Oak was always at the top of his oak tour list. Many of his photographs documenting these trips can be found online at the Louisiana Digital Library under Southwestern Louisiana Institute Photographs, 1923-1940.

Next… Revisiting the Two Cleveland Oaks – at Avery Island and Jefferson Island.