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

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.

Cleveland Oak_Avery Is #4

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.

Cathedral Oak wide view#1

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.

Cathedral Oak_#3_7_17

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.

Cathedra Oak morning_pano study 11

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.