Historic Oak is gone, memories gone with it

One of the most photographed trees in Lafayette is lost during the storm that caused the flooding across Acadiana.
(Photo: SCOTT CLAUSE/THE ADVERTISER)
One of the most photographed trees in Lafayette is lost during the storm that caused the flooding across Acadiana. (Photo: SCOTT CLAUSE/THE ADVERTISER)

LAFAYETTE, La. (The Daily Advertiser) – The devastating August floods swept away more than entire homes and businesses.

They also swept away memories. The kind that come from objects or landmarks that have dotted a landscape for centuries.

Tuttie Billeaud’s home sits on a secluded, shady spot in what is now known as the Village of River Ranch. She and her family have been living there for more than 50 years. In fact, the Billeaud family sold the land that River Ranch was built on in 2006. The land is now a thriving neighborhood, but was once part of the Long Plantation.

Recently, the heavy rains and flood waters devastated one of the most famous parts of the property.
A massive oak tree, estimated to be almost 500 years old, used to sit right in the Billeauds’ backyard.  It buckled under the weight of the water, split in two and landed partly on their roof.
“One day I was upstairs and I opened up my bathroom window and saw nothing but oak tree outside,” Billeaud recalled. “It fell on the roof. It was just so saturated from days of rain.”

Billeaud said she had hoped to save some of the tree, which is registered with the Live Oak Society of Louisiana. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be possible. She then called a specialist to deal with the clean up and removal, and that’s when she got her biggest surprise.

“The man started counting the rings to see how old it was,” Billeaud said, pointing to the remainder of the trunk. “He stopped counting at 494.”

What made the oak so special was not just that it was almost 500 years old.  It was also used as a backdrop for countless portraits, wedding pictures, proms and other special-occasion photographs.

The massive tree was a favorite of local photographers, and Billeaud often gave them an open invitation to use the tree whenever they wanted. Jay Faugot, who has been in the photography business more than 30 years, said the tree was one of his favorite places to shoot.

“The massive size of it and the way the branches would go down to the ground in some places, and the moss, was beautiful,” Faugot said. “It made for a magnificent backdrop. I just think there is nothing else anywhere in the country that can compare to that. When you leave Louisiana, you don’t see that.”

Billeaud even remembered a couple, whom she did not know, asking her if she could get married under the tree. She said the groom was from another country, so she figured, why not? The Lafayette doyenne agreed and she and a few other family members became part of the wedding party.

“They wanted to have the wedding under the big oak so, I said, sure! Tell them to come on, “ Billeaud said. “So we had Champagne and watched the ceremony, just the six of us.”

Billeaud’s daughters, Lorraine Billeaud and Teal Brauns, said the entire family made so many memories under the tree, that they get emotional just thinking about how it will no longer be part of their lives. For them, the tree was an extended living area, somewhere for family and friends to gather for any occasion.

“We did everything back here, under that tree,” Brauns said. “I’m a big giant tree hugger, so it kind of buckled me at my knees when it came down.”

The family is learning the pros and cons of the tree being gone. They said while there is more light inside the house, outside, the sun is making its presence known. Without the shade from the giant tree, the porch can get quite hot.

Still, Billeaud said she plans to plant another oak, as big a tree as she can find. Although, she admits that at her age (almost 90), she may never again see one quite like the one she lost.

“I watched this one grow for 50 years,” she said. “Of course, I’ll never see the new one grow like that.”

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