More River Road Oak Allées – Houmas House

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A portion of Houmas House oak allée with six oaks.

In three previous posts, I’ve spotlighted the historic oak allées at Evergreen, Whitney, and Oak Alley Plantations, as well as St. Joseph allée at Manresa Retreat (the old Jefferson College) in Convent, LA.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one more allee that still remains (in part) at Houmas House plantation, located on the east bank of the river in Darrow, LA, about a half-hour drive upriver from the Grammercy bridge.

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Houmas House mansion, viewed from the John Burnside Oak.

According to “64 Parishes,” the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ publication and website, “Despite extensive investigation, the exact chronology and early building history of Houmas House remain unknown. What is documented is that it stands on land purchased in 1774 from the Houmas Indians. By 1809, a house existed on the site, perhaps built by William Donaldson and John W. Scott, who then owned the land.” General Wade Hampton (1752–1835), from South Carolina, acquired the plantation in 1811 and in 1840, Hampton’s daughter Caroline and her husband, John Smith Preston, built the current two-and-a-half-story Greek Revival manor.

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Houmas House oak allée, view from #2 set of oaks from the main house

The surviving oak allée consists of eight oaks. They are all of what remains from a much longer allée that once existed but was destroyed to create a setback of the Mississippi River levee.

In 2003, New Orleans businessman and preservationist Kevin Kelly purchased the home and the entire contents of the mansion and began restoring the mansion and grounds. According to the Houmas House website, Kelly chose to select the best features from various periods of the property’s history to showcase a legacy of each family who lived in the mansion. Check the Houmas House Plantation website for information on tours.

 

 

 

Revisiting Louisiana’s Oldest Oaks – My top 23

A number of readers have been visiting my 2015 post about my search for the oldest live oaks in Louisiana; those that are near 30 feet in girth or larger. Since 2015, I’ve added a few more old oaks to this list and am still tracking down leads on others. Thankfully, I keep learning of new (new to me at least) old oaks that are potentially in this size and age range.

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Boudreaux family oak, along Bayou Lafourche near St. Charles

These oaks are of a generation of trees that were likely already growing when the first Europeans settled along the rivers and bayous of south Louisiana. Tragically, we are losing these elder oaks, one by one each year, through storms, land development, and pollution.  My goal is to create a record of them being here and possibly capture some of the human stories connected with them.

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La Belle Colline Oak, near Lafayette

My list of historic old oaks is certainly not all-inclusive. There are a couple of other people out there in the world documenting old trees in Louisiana. They may have documented other old oaks that I haven’t found yet and photographed.  I get comments regularly from people who claim to know of some old tree nearby that’s really old and big! These are on my shortlist of “yet-to-find” oaks that I’m slowly visiting and photographing. Here’s what I’ve documented currently:

  1. Seven Sisters Oak – 39′-10″;  Lewisburg / Mandeville (President of Live Oak Society and National Champion Tree for Quercus virginiana species with American Forests Big Tree Registry)
  2. Randall Oak – 35′-8″;  New Roads (it’s on the Pointe Coupee live oak tour)
  3. Edna Szymoniak Live Oak – 35′-6″; LSU Hammond Research Station, Hammond
  4. Lorenza Dow Oak – 35′ 5″;  (May have been the Dr. E.O. Powers Oak) – Grangeville Masonic Lodge; a 2nd unnamed oak on the lodge grounds is 27′-11″
  5. La Belle Colline Oak – 34′ plus; Between Sunset and Carencro on private property
  6. The Martin Tree 34′ – Gonzales; (named for Miss Delba Martin) on private property
  7. The Governor’s Oak – 33′-3″; Baton Rouge, on Highland Road
  8. Lastrapes Oak (Seven Brothers Oak)  32′-3″ (largest section); Washington, LA
  9. Blanchet Oak – 32′ 2″; Lafayette (featured in a recent US News story)
  10. Jefferson College Oak – 32′ 1″; On the upriver edge of the grounds at Manresa House of Retreats, Convent
  11. Boudreaux Friendship Oak – 31′-10″; Lafayette (in top 10 oaks of Acadiana)
  12. Lagarde Oak – 30′-11”; Luling, LA
  13. The Mays Oak – 30’-11″; at Live Oaks Plantation, north of Rosedale
  14. Grosse Tete Oak – 30′ 2″; Bayou Grosse Tete, right off of I-10
  15. Etienne de Bore’ Oak – 30′; Audubon Park, NOLA; also called the “Tree of Life” by New Orleans locals
  16. The Rebekah Oak – 30′; on Poydras Hwy. near Breaux Bridge
  17. Hudson Oak – 29′-9″; Hudson House (private home), Prairieville
  18. Grenier Oak or Donald Peltier Oak – 29′-9″;  above Thibodaux on Bayou Lafourche (located on very private land).
  19. Josephine Stewart Oak – 29′ 11″; Oak Alley Plantation; Vacherie
  20. Stonaker Oak – 29′ 6″; New Roads, LA
  21. St. John’s Cathedral Oak – 29′ 6″; Lafayette, LA (Top 10 oaks of Acadiana)
  22. Boudreaux Oak – 29′ 2″; On Hwy 1, near the St. Charles Bridge (on Bayou Lafourche Live Oak Tour)
  23. Mr. Mike Oak – 29′; near Franklin (on the grounds outside of Oaklawn Plantation) 

NOTE:  Thanks to this post, one reader sent directions to another 29-ft.-plus live oak north of Opelousas and Washington.  Thanks, Will Favre!  I appreciate all leads to new old oaks and will get to them all in time.  – BG

The Oldest Oak Allées in Louisiana

In France, an allée refers to a road, or path, flanked by parallel rows of trees, shrubs, statues, or stones. In European landscape design, it is an ancient concept. Visually and emotionally, the allée emphasizes a traveler’s arrival at a specific locale. It indicates a formal approach to a notable place or structure (I use the French term allée instead of alley throughout this blog post).

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70-year-old farm road allée – Evergreen Plantation, Edgard

The allée arrived in Louisiana by way of European immigrants who settled here in the late 1700s and 1800s. In time, German, Creole French, and American planters began to accumulate vast fortunes, dependent on slave labor to cultivate crops of indigo, sugarcane, cotton, and tobacco. Intent on publicizing their wealth to their neighbors, these planter-barons would often landscape the grounds around their opulent plantation homes, planting allées and gardens mimicking formal gardens and parks of Paris, Lyon, and Marseille.

In Louisiana, an allée of magnificent native live oaks (Quercus virginiana) was regarded as a grand display of affluence as well as a sign of older, more established wealth, since the oaks could take decades to mature. On a practical level, an allée of oaks provided shelter and shade for a home. Along the Mississippi River, an allée of trees helped direct cooling breezes toward a plantation house, to reduce the intense heat of Louisiana’s summers.

In my 30+ years of travel across Louisiana in search of historic live oaks, I have photographed 16 mature allées that are still intact. Some are in obvious decline and others are even more magnificent now, in their full maturity.  The three oldest of these allées can be dated to the late 1700s and early 1800s. They include:

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De la Ronde (Packenham) Oak Allée, Chalmette

1) The De la Ronde Oaks (also known as the Versailles Allée of Oaks), were planted in 1783 on the 21st birthday of Pierre Denis De la Ronde in what is today the town of Chalmette. The allée of oaks (about 40 oaks remain) is often misidentified as the Packenham Oaks, after the ill-fated British General Packenham who led British forces and died at the Battle of New Orleans. The allée stretched between the De la Ronde plantation manor (called “Versaille” because of its extraordinary size and beauty for the time) and the Mississippi River. The plantation was one of several plantations that were the site of the Battle of New Orleans in Dec. 1814 and early January 1815.

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Audubon Oak Allée, Zoo side of Magazine Street, New Orleans

2) The Audubon Oak Allée (also called the Foucher Allée) was planted by Etienne de Boré, sometime between 1776 and 1800. Etienne and his wife, Marie Marguerite, settled on a plot of land about 5 miles upriver from New Orleans where they began planting indigo around 1776 or 1777 (he changed to growing sugarcane around 1795). The original de Boré allée of oaks, according to historic maps, was much longer than the 28 oaks remaining today. It may have stretched as far as Naiad Street (the current St. Charles Avenue), but part of the land was cleared of its stately live oaks to make way for the buildings housing the Cotton Centennial Exposition of 1884.

According to Diane Weber, grounds director for Audubon Zoo and Park, the de Boré plantation house would have been located where the sea lion pool is now in Audubon Zoo, and the oak allée would have led to it. The George Washington and Martha Washington oaks would have framed the view of the home. Although the George Washington Oak is deceased, the Martha Washington Oak still survives in the rhino habitat area at the zoo.

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Allée of oaks at Oak Alley Plantation, Vacherie

3) The allée of 28 live oaks at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie was supposedly planted beginning in 1836 during the construction of the manor house (according to the most current research). Oak Alley Foundation researchers believe that the allée was created by moving mature live oaks beginning with the first three pairs of oaks in front of the plantation house. However, this explanation doesn’t account for some of the larger trees growing further from the house in each row of trees. At least three of the oaks are between 28 ft. and 30 ft. in girth, which would indicate a much older oak (my note).

The classic view of its Greek Revival mansion, framed by the quarter-mile-long tunnel of live oak limbs, is so well-known that it has become an “icon,” a symbol. No other allée that I’ve found in Louisiana is planted with such careful attention to the spacing and direction of its trees.  The north-south alignment of oaks seems planned to produce dramatic side-lighting both early and late in the day. This elaborate interplay between light and shadow is, in itself, a work of art.

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.”

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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” http://www.lostcolleges.com/jefferson-college