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Ask McGehee: How old are the oaks in Bienville Square?

It is estimated that in 1892, some of the square’s oaks were more than 80 years old. Many are still in place 120 years later.

It is estimated that in 1892, some of the square’s oaks were more than 80 years old. Many are still in place 120 years later.

The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

According to Ron Jackson, the longtime urban forester for Mobile, live oaks have been in that location since at least 1812. At that time, land that is now Bienville Square was known as the Spanish Hospital Plot. It held a dozen structures in the midst of a residential district. 

City officials planned for the space to be used for a grand city hall surrounded by a park, but the financial collapse of 1837 put an end to that idea. A massive fire two years later took the square’s remaining houses, which faced Dauphin and Conception streets.

During the 1840s, housewives used the square to hang their laundry between the oaks, while cattle and hogs grazed nearby. Those years of holding livestock may well have improved the soil for later trees.

Two Mayors and the Trees

J. W. L. Childers, a South Carolina transplant and mayor of Mobile, is credited with the major planting of live oaks in the space. His project began in 1847, two years before the full square was finally deeded to the city. 

A decade later, the tree canopy was still thin enough to allow for a “balloon ascension.” The “Comet” was promoted to offer future trips via air to California. It took three days to inflate the giant balloon, only to have it suffer a puncture from a nearby post and collapse. Air flight to the West Coast would have to wait.

Walkways were in place by the 1850s, and a wooden fence kept out stray cattle. However, it was not until 1866 that the area was christened Bienville Square. A photo from this era reveals an elaborate cast-iron fence along Dauphin Street lined with a row of young live oaks.

In the early 20th century, Mayor Pat Lyons championed the oaks of Bienville Square and began a beautification project for the space, including the planting of grass and azaleas. Following the close of the 1946 Mardi Gras season, the park again received much needed attention, and irrigation was added for the first time.

Popularity Kills

Even today, the oak trees in Bienville Square create a green canopy that makes the space especially attractive for countless festivals, which bring tourists and locals Downtown. Unfortunately, the very trees that visitors admire and congregate beneath suffer from the incessant pounding footsteps that compact the soil around their roots, cutting off the oxygen they require. The regular dumping of food wastes from various cook-offs adds to their misery. Jackson points to the dieback in many of the branches of the old oaks attesting to this root damage.


While most of the trees seen from this circa 1930 view of Bienville Square remain,
foot traffic and festivals have hampered their natural growth patterns.
The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

 

As early as 1990, attempts were made to move the growing number of festivals to other parks, including Cathedral Square. While that site has taken some of the strain from Bienville, those great oak trees continue to make it the venue of choice for outdoor events Downtown.

Officials are anxious to improve the square for Mobilians. Recently, one suggested that grass would grow much better in Bienville Square if most of the oaks were removed. Luckily, that idea was shot down.

The Big Question

Jackson says that the compaction of the soil has no doubt slowed the trees’ growth so it is difficult to assess their true age – short of cutting them down and counting the growth rings. Photographs from the late 19th century reveal most of the large trees enjoyed today were in place, while others have been added in the years since.

This inquiry has come up before. In the 1920s, historian and journalist Erwin Craighead tried to answer it. His result? “As yet, (there is) no definite answer.” I stand by Mr. Craighead’s assessment.

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