The Live Oak Society was founded in 1934 by Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens, the first President of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, then Southwestern Louisiana Institute. His inspiration for starting the society came from road trips on the Old Spanish Trail.
Dr. Stephens first suggested organizing this unique society in an article in the Louisiana Conservation Review titled, "I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing." Published in April 1934, this article was titled after a poem by Walt Whitman. In the article he stated, "I have been considering the live oak for some time and am coming to believe that the world does not realize what a splendid possession it holds in this tree....Why do we not form a Louisiana Live Oak Association? Let the membership be composed of the trees themselves....I will volunteer my service for a time as Acting Secretary....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 for charter membership."
The article included a list of charter members with names, locations and dimensions including girth or circumference of the trunks. Through discussions with foresters and botanists, it was revealed that a tree whose girth was 17 feet would be at least 100 years old.
To figure the approximate age of a tree, measure its girth four feet from the ground, convert that measurement to inches and divide by 1.5. An oak will add an average of 1.5 inches to its girth each year, although the older ones grow at a considerably lesser rate.
Membership of the Live Oak Society is composed entirely of oak trees 100 years old or older. There is only one human member, an honorary chairman, who registers the trees. Each tree has an "attorney" or sponsor to act as its guardian. The trees once paid dues of 25 acorns per year and can be expelled for such offenses as whitewashing and bearing advertising. (A group of trees was once "tried" by Judge Horace White of Alexandria for whitewashing, but were not expelled on the grounds that the trees did not apply the whitewash themselves.)
Charter members included: President - the Lock Breaux Oak in St. Charles Parish (circumference was 35 feet), First Vice President - the Arnaud Robert Oak near Breaux Bridge, Second Vice President - the George Washington Oak (Audubon Park, New Orleans), Third Vice-President - the Luling Live Oak (Luling), and Fourth Vice President - the Martha Washington Live Oak (Audubon Park, New Orleans).
The Locke Breaux Oak was the president for many years. The tree died some years ago and has been replaced by the Seven Sisters Oak in the Louisburg area of Mandeville in St. Tammany Parish. The original first vice president, the Arnaud Robert Oak, has also succumbed to age and has been replace by the Middleton Oak in Charleston, S.C. The St. John Cathedral Oak in Lafayette is the current second vice president, replacing the George Washington Oak.
Dr. Stephens presented a constitution and by-laws stating, "The purpose of the Live Oak Society shall be to promote the culture, distribution and appreciation of the live oak....The Locke Breaux Live Oak near Hahnville, St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, shall be first president. Thereafter, the largest live oak in the society shall be declared president at the next Semi-Occasional meeting after its description and location shall be ascertained."
An interesting notarial record reads: "Done before me, the Robert Martin Live Oak, at my official position at the front gate of Southwestern Louisiana Institute, this first day of February, AD 1935, in the presence of the Stanley Martin Live Oak (set out February 22, 1919, and also of seventeen Twentieth Century live oaks beside myself (set out January 1, 1901) together with one hundred other small live oaks on the Southwestern campus."
The Acting Secretary's interest continued until his death in November, 1938. He visited many of the Society members and maintained records of the organization. Following his death, interest lagged until 1945 when Stanley C. Arthur, executive director of the Louisiana State Museum, assumed responsibility for record keeping, admission of new members and continued measurements of tree growth. He issued the Live Oak Society Bulletin No. 1, New Series which stated, "Dr. Stephens' last published list, made in 1935, included 57 oaks. My revised list records 119 trees with their names, locations, measurements and sponsors." Following the death of Mr. Arthur a few years later, interest in the Society became dormant again.
In 1957 at the request of Dr. Stephens' daughters, Mrs. Frederick Hard of Santa Cruz, California and Mrs. C. Crafton Harris of London, England, the Louisiana Garden Club Federation assumed responsibility for maintaining records and registering new applicants. Mrs. Harry W. Brown was successful as chairman in this important work. Upon her appointment in 1963, she had applications and certificates printed and amended the by-laws.
On April 7, 1980, two live oak trees located at the Louisiana Garden Club Federation Headquarters in Lecompte, Louisiana were dedicated to the memory of Dr. Edwin Stephens and Mrs. Harry W. (Lucille) Brown by Mrs. Louis M. Pfister, then Live Oak Society chairman.
Dr. Stephens himself nominated 100 trees on the UL campus as the first branch of the Junior League. Junior League trees must be at least eight feet in circumference. Dr. Stephens also noted that "the size of the trunk varies much according to whether the tree grew up in the open, far from competition with other growth, or whether it chance to be...crowded among other trees." He recommended that "there should be a by-law...admitting members of girth smaller than 17 feet, when sufficient evidence appears for the age of not less than a hundred years."
Charter oaks named by Dr. Stephens in the Acadiana area included the Arnaud Robert Oak in Cecilia; the Kaplan Oak, Intracoastal City; Parks Oak, Parks; Voorhies Oak, Parks; St. Germain Oak, Breaux Bridge; Joe Jefferson Oak, Jefferson Island; Grover Cleveland Oak, Avery Island; St. John Oak, Lafayette; Pere Rochard Oak, Breaux Bridge; Archangel of Paradise Grove, Breaux Bridge; G. A. Martin Oak, Lafayette; Gebert Oak, New Iberia. Many of these oaks were found and measured by Dr. Stephens himself.
For more information on the Live Oak Society, contact Coleen Perilloux Landry at email@example.com or 17832 River Road, Montz, LA 70068. Mrs. Landry is the chairman of the Live Oak Society, which has grown to over 7,600 members.