Tuesday, July 22, 2008


One of the last social gatherings I attended before I left New Iberia, Louisiana, was a luncheon meeting of The New Iberia Fortnightly Literary Club, New Iberia’s oldest literary club. We met at Lagniappe Too’s Café on Main Street, where New Iberians love to meet and eat the wonderful dishes prepared by Elaine Landry, one of Louisiana’s superb chefs. Elaine cooks; and Al, her architect and artist husband, greets the many visitors, from hungry locals to international diners, who search for genuine Cajun cuisine.

Dianne Landry, one of my fellow Fortnightly members, sat next to me at this last-meeting-of-the-year luncheon and began discussing a book she was reading about Joseph Jefferson, a famous actor who spent many years in retreat at nearby Jefferson Island, Louisiana. Joe Jefferson is remembered for his role as “Rip Van Winkle” on stages throughout the U.S. and abroad. I told Dianne about a mini biography I wrote about Jefferson in a book entitled LIVE OAK GARDENS. Actually, I had considered writing a children’s book about Jefferson before I discovered that someone had preceded me.

To me, the fascinating aspect of Joe Jefferson’s life is that this Philadelphia-born actor chose to own a home near New Iberia in a remote place then called Orange Island, a land mass pushed up by a dome of salt, forming an island that rose above the marshlands surrounding it. The island was so named because of the grove of orange trees Jefferson first spied when he visited there in the late 1860’s. He eventually bought the island in 1870 for the sum of $28,000 at a time when this exotic place was inaccessible by road, and Jefferson traveled to his retreat from Algiers (near New Orleans) to the end of the railroad line, then boarded a sternwheeler to the island. Thirty six hundred acres of oaks, pecan trees, and an orange grove covered the island.

William Ballou, a reporter for “Cosmopolitan magazine,” writing of his visit to the island in 1889, described the retreat as an “immense grove of magnolias and live oaks.” He mentioned the Osage shrubs guarding the grounds from cattle and an arched corridor that led from the mansion to Lake Peigneur through a mesh of hanging vines, mistletoe, and other vegetation. Ballou wrote: “At the foot of the hill, toward the east, is a jungle, where the cypress reigns, together with the alligator which makes the night weird if not hideous with its unearthly baying” (If you’ve ever heard an alligator baying, you’ll understand Ballou’s description!).

Jefferson also owned cattle that grazed on a prairie nearby, and they yielded him a profit of $10,000 annually. Lake Peigneur was feeding ground for ducks, geese, snipe, and plover. Wildlife on the island included deer, turkey buzzards, boat-tailed grackles, and blackbirds, which Jefferson used as subjects for his paintings. Jefferson used the island as a place of respite from his theatrical work. At the island, he entertained writers, actors, artists, even President Grover Cleveland in 1892. In his leisure time he painted on the third level of his mansion beneath a fourth floor cupola that rose from the center of his home. By far, the grandest room in the house was the dining room with its Cathedral Gothic design, carved ceiling, and Moorish designs. A skylight in the mansion allowed Jefferson abundant light to paint landscapes, sheep, buzzards, and bayous, using his fingers, rag pieces, blotting paper, and feathers to achieve special effects. He said that the greatest landscapes were works of the imagination rather than transcripts of realities.

Joe Jefferson was an actor and connoisseur, painter, and naturalist who claimed that the recipe for a successful life included “hard labor, careful husbandry, and judicious speculation.” Today, Live Oak Gardens and his mansion are internationally renowned as places of peace and beauty, due to the efforts of this man who played the role of Rip Van Winkle on the American and international stages and who made exotic Jefferson Island his preferred home. As I wrote in the small book, LIVE OAK GARDENS, “today, the live oaks form ancient shelters, standing like patriarchs with their beards of moss trailing in the slight breeze. They arch high above the paths, unencumbering, but offering visitors respite from the sun…Sound is minimal. Sometimes all one hears is the drone of worker bees fussing in an open blossom or blue jays dipping and shrilling overhead, ready to steal a berry, a fruit, some forbidden object from the enchanted garden…”

The present owner of Live Oak Gardens is working on another book about the gardens, but I understand he often hands out complimentary copies of my book about Live Oak Gardens and Joseph Jefferson. If you’re interested in this Acadiana landmark and the man who first developed it, you might write Live Oak Gardens Ltd., 10106 Jefferson Island Rd., New Iberia, Louisiana 70560 and ask for a copy.
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