The Stonaker Oak – John James Audubon’s Favorite Live Oak?

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.

Library archive of Dr. Stephens’ photo: Stonaker / St.Maurice Oak, circa 1930

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.

Dr. Stephens’ photo: Stonaker / St.Maurice Oak, circa 1930

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.

circa 1898 photo of St. Maurice Oak, prior to lower limb on right side being removed

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…

Stonaker / St. Maurice Oak, October 2015, upriver view
Stonaker / St. Maurice Oak, October 2015, downriver view with Labatut home in background
Stonaker Oak, close up view of trunk and scars of lost limbs

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.

The Live Oak Society—the original 43 member trees

The first 43
I recently received copies of two articles written by Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens (founder of the Live Oak Society) for the Louisiana Conservation Review (a discontinued publication of the Louisiana Department of Conservation). Many thanks to Dr. Bruce Turner and Jane Vidrine of the Special Collections Division at the Edith Garland Dupré Library at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette for their help in getting copies of these articles. (They are posted under the “Pages” heading in the right table of contents column of the blog. When the page opens just click on the title and it will open a photocopy of the original article.)

The first article titled, “I Saw In Louisiana a Live Oak Growing,” contains the original proposal by Dr. Stephens to establish an organization comprised entirely of live oak trees that were 100 years of age or older (now called The Live Oak Society). The article’s title is borrowed from a Walt Whitman poem of the same name. This article, dated April 1934, marks the founding of the Live Oak Society in Louisiana and the South.

Stonaker Oak, New Roads vicinity (29' 6

Stonaker Oak or St. Maurice Oak, New Roads vicinity (29′ 6″) #16 of 43


Stonaker Oak, view #2

The second article is titled “The Live Oak Society.” In it, Dr. Stephens discusses the reactions and comments he received from his previous article and recommendation to form the Live Oak Society.

Stephens’ appreciation for live oaks grew over many years of living in Louisiana and from frequent motor trips he took with his wife along the back roads and byways through Cajun country. Influenced by his background as a science teacher, he observed, measured, photographed, and collected data on the oaks, taking special interest in the oldest and largest of the species.

Parks Oak #1; 25+ feet (#10 of 43)

From his perspective as a scholar and poet, he recognized the deeper truth of this Southern icon—that more than any other aspect of the landscape, the live oak symbolically reflects the most memorable and distinctive characteristics of the cultures and people that settled this rich alluvial region: strength of character, forbearance, longevity, and a hearty nature.

Stephens wrote, “To my mind the live oak is the noblest of all our trees, the most to be admired for its beauty, most to be praised for it strength, most to be respected for its majesty, dignity and grandeur, most to be cherished and venerated for its age and character, and most to be loved with gratitude for its beneficence of shade for all the generations of man dwelling within its vicinity.

…I suggest that the members of the Association shall consist of trees whose age is not less than a hundred years. I at present number among my personal acquaintance forty-three such live oaks in Louisiana, eligible to qualify for charter membership.” Seventy-four years later, the Live Oak Society counts more than 7,000 member oaks on its registry in 14 states (and now includes Junior League trees with a girth of at least eight feet).


Gebert Oak, study 3, #43 of original 43 inductee oaks


Gebert Oak, study 1, New Iberia, LA

In 2008, I wrote an article for the American Forests magazine in which I attempted to locate and photograph as many of the original Live Oak Society inductees as I could locate. Using Dr. Stephens’’ 74-year-old article as a guide, I began retracing his drives across South Louisiana, along bayous with names like Teche, Lafourche, Maringouin, Grosse Tete, and Terrebonne—French and native American names that evoke romantic images of moss-draped trees, Cajun fisherman in flatboats, sultry heat, and white-columned plantation homes. Dr. Stephens listed the 43 charter oaks in order of their size—large to less large—noting their circumference, name (usually that of a sponsor), and general location.

Avery Island Oak number 2; 24' 1" (#21 of 43)

Avery Island Oak number 2; 24′ 1″ (#21 of 43)

I quickly realized that I was naïve about the degree of change that can occur in a landscape over 74 years. Plantation homes have faded away, changed names, been parceled off and subdivided, or simply torn down. Properties have changed owners and entire families have died or moved away.

Avery Island Oak number 2; 24' 1" (#21 of 43)

Avery Island Oak number 2; 24′ 1″ (#21 of 43)

In some cases, oaks have been registered more than once, and by different owners, adding to the confusion between Dr. Stephens description of a tree’s location and the current landscape. Some oak names were familiar to a few locals and were not particularly difficult to find. Others required extensive research through libraries, the Internet, books and the kind assistance of many local librarians, chambers of commerce, sheriff’s deputies and Louisiana Garden Club members across the state.

Thomas Boyd Oak and state capital; 20' 6" (#38 of 43) tree fell down in Hurricane Gustave and has been removed.

Thomas Boyd Oak and state capital; 20′ 6″ (#38 of 43) the tree fell down in Hurricane Gustave and has been removed.

I confirmed that in just 74 years four of the inductees had died including the top three. I suspected that six more were deceased possibly due to urban growth and development (a total of 14%). Of the original 43, I found nineteen oaks (45%) alive and well. I was unable to locate or accurately confirm the identity of fourteen more (but suspect they are still alive).

Since 2008 when I wrote the American Forests article, I continued my search for the rest of the 43 whenever I’m photographing in an area where they were located.  At some point soon, I will publish an update that will include any other of the original inductees I have been able to accurately identify and document.