The Ruskin Hoaks: an Ocean Springs Hoax Tree
This vintage image probably made in the 1930s depicts the “Ruskin Oak”, a live oak tree, located in Lot 12 of the Ruskin Oak Subdivision on the west side of Ruskin Avenue. This unfortunate tree was the object of a cruel hoax perpert rated in the distant past. Local lore relates that John Ruskin (1819-1900), an Englishman who was a poet, author, and artist and a 19th Century icon highly recognized as art critic and social critic, had tea under this tree in 1885. Not!
The “Ruskin Oak” is situated on the west side of Ruskin Avenue on the property of Cornelia “Connie” Ann Favret and Sandra Hall A. Diaz, the granddaughters of Elmer L. Williams (1898-1985) and Cornelia Champagne (1906-1983). In August 1953, Elmer L. Williams and spouse acquired the Ruskin Oak when they bought a lot on the east side of “Many Oaks” from Lloyd S. Harden and Sylvia M. Harden. The fabled tree was once a part of the John B. Honor (1856-1929) “Many Oaks” Estate, now owned by Mary C. Zala Jensen. Mr. Williams paid the Hardens $22,500 for the approximate 1.7-acre tract on which he erected two houses for himself and his daughter, Anna Mae Williams Favret (1924-1997).(JXCO, Ms. Land Deed Bk. 133, p. 477)
Lloyd S. Harden
Many Oaks owner, Lloyd Sutton Harden (1896-1994), was born at Larue, Marion County, Ohio, the son of Nelson W. Harden and Cecelia Ann Sanders. In 1920, he was a partner in an auto tire retail business with his father. Lloyd married Sylvia Marie van Lear (1898-1989), also an Ohioan, in April 1920. By 1930, the Hardens had relocated to Sharon, Ohio were he also owned an automobile tire retail store.(1920 Marion Co., Ohio Federal Census, T625_1416, p. 12A, ED 140 and 1930 Marion Co., Ohio Federal Census, R1802, p. 1B, ED 215)
In April 1947, the Hardens acquired “Many Oaks” from Mary V. White, the widow of Thomas W. White (d. 1946) who had expired at St. Louis, Missouri in March 1946. They conveyed Many Oaks to Carl F. Beck (1902-1957) and wife, Marsa E. Beck (d. 1972), in March 1955. The Becks were also from Missouri. The Ruskin Oak tract previously sold to Elmer L. Williams was naturally excluded from the sale.(JXCO, Ms. Land Deed Bk. 96, p. 573 and Bk. 133, p. 477)
The Harden family relocated to Russell’s Point, Logan County, Ohio.
Elmer Williams (1898-1985) was born at Biloxi, Mississippi to Carroll “Cal” Williams (1864-1959) and Anna Cox (1876-1941). In 1920, he with Charles DeJean and Frank Bosarge commenced the DeJean Packing Company. His brother, Carroll “Peck” Williams (1900-1977), joined the firm as a partner in later years, and in time, the two became sole owners of the corporation. In April 1923, Elmer married Cornelia Champagne (1906-1983), a native of Charenton, St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, in the St. Michael’s Catholic Church. They were the parents of two daughters: Anna Mae Williams Favret (1924-1997) and Mercedes Williams Hall (b. 1925).(The Daily Herald, April 4, 1923, p. 3 and March 25, 1953, p. 7 and The Ocean Springs Record, January 31, 1985, p. 6)
Elmer Williams was a candidate for Mayor of Biloxi in 1953. He ran on the tenet that “there is no reason why a city or other public sub-division cannot and should not be administered on sound American business principles.” Mr. Williams expired on January 29, 1985. His corporal remains were interred in the Southern Memorial Park Cemetery at Biloxi. Cornelia preceded Elmer in death passing on in October 1983 at her home at 309 Front Beach Drive in Ocean Springs.(The Daily Herald, March 25, 1953, p. 7 and The Ocean Springs Record, January 31, 1985, p. 6)
The Williams legated their Front Beach Estate to their daughters: Anna Mae Williams Favret and Mercedes Williams Hall. In December 1987, the Williams sisters conveyed their interest in their parent’s Front Beach property, which included the Ruskin Oak, to their daughters: Cornelia “Connie” Ann Favret (b. 1944) and Sandra Hall Anderson Diaz (b. 1946).(JXCO, Ms. Land Deed Bk. 918, p. 10 and p. 12)
Ruskin Oak Subdivision
In September 1953, Elmer L. Williams platted the Ruskin Oak Subdivision. It is composed of twelve lots comprising both sides of Ruskin Avenue running from Cleveland to Front Beach Drive. The Ruskin Oak is located on Lot 12, which today also hosts the homes of Sandra Hall Anderson Diaz and Connie A. Favret.(JXCO, Ms. Chancery Court Plat Bk. 2, p. 61)
In September 1954, local realtors, J.K. Lemon (1914-1998) and J.C. "Champ" Gay (1909-1975), of Ocean Springs Realty Company were selling lots in the Ruskin Oak Subdivision. FHA loans were available for home construction.(The Daily Herald, September 7, 1954, p. 5)
The Ruskin Oak
The Ruskin Oak is a live oak tree, Quercus virginiana. Live oak is a large spreading tree of the lower Coastal Plain from southeastern Virginia to southern Florida and to southern Texas. It normally grows in low sandy soils near the Coast but also occurs in moist rich woods and along stream banks. On the Gulf Coast, live oaks often support many types of epiphytic plants, including Spanish moss which hangs in weeping garlands, giving the trees a striking appearance. Live oak is a fast-growing, hardwood tree. Sweet edible acorns are usually produced in great abundance and are of value to many birds and mammals. The yellowish-brown wood is hard, heavy, tough, strong, and is used for structural beams, shipbuilding, posts, and in places requiring strength and durability. The trees have been historically planted in cities. When planting live oak, it should be restricted to large yards or parks where the spreading form can be accommodated.
The national champion live oak was discovered in 1976 near Louisburg, Louisiana. It had a circumference of 36.6 feet, height of 55 feet, and crown spread of 132 feet. The Florida champion live oak, as given in the 1984 revised list, was found in Alachua County and measured 28.3 feet in circumference, 83 feet in height, and had a spread 150.5’. http://www.sfrc.ufl.edu/4h/Live_oak/liveoak.htm
In 1939, the Ruskin Oak had a spread of 139 feet and circumference of 17 feet. In December 2005, the circumference is 21 feet and four inches. By national standards it is not an impressively large live oak.(Mississippi Gulf Coast Yesterday & Today (1699-1939), 1939, p. 91 and The Ocean Springs Record, April 29, 1971, p. 13)
Who was John Ruskin?
John Ruskin (1819-1900) was born in London, England. His father was a wealthy wine merchant. Ruskin was educated at the University of Oxford, where he was awarded a prize for poetry, his earliest interest. It was there that he met Joseph Mallord William Turner, whom he began to defend against critics in an 1836 essay. His ‘’Modern Painters’’ series was responsible for the early popularity of the artist as well as the pre-Raphaelite movement. Ruskin spent much of his later life at a house called Brantwood, on the shores of Coniston Water located in the Lake District of England.
Ruskin taught first at the Working Men’s College in London. He was the first Slade Professor of Art at Oxford University, from 1869 to 1879. There John Ruskin friendly with Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and was photographed by him. Ruskin College at Oxford is named after him.
Upon the death of his father, Ruskin declared that it was not possible to be a rich socialist and gave away most of his inheritance. He founded the charity known as the Guild of St George in the 1870s and endowed it with large sums of money as well as a remarkable collection of art. He also gave the money to enable Octavia Hill to begin her practical campaign of housing reform.
Ruskin’s later works influenced many Labor union leaders of the Victorian era. He was also the inspiration for the Arts and Crafts Movement, the founding of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, the National Art Collections Fund and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
John Ruskin wrote over 250 works, which tended to connect art history to topics ranging from science, literary criticism, environmental conditions, and mythology. He is well known for his essay on economy ‘’Unto This Last’’, the essay ‘’The Nature of Gothic’’, and the early fantasy novel ‘’The King of the Golden River.
Ruskin’s influence extends far beyond the field of art history. The author Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) described him as “one of those rare men who think with their heart.” Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was a Ruskin enthusiast and translated his works into French. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) said that Ruskin had been the single greatest influence in his life.( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ruskin )
What makes the “Ruskin Oak” at Ocean Springs, a HOAKs, is that John Ruskin never visited New Orleans for the 1884-1885 Cotton Centennial, nor did he ever travel to North America. Ruskin made only two journeys out of England in his life time. In 1880 he visited northern France, and began the Bible of Amiens, finished in 1885. In 1882 he had another serious illness, with inflammation of the brain. Ruskin recovered sufficiently to travel to his old haunts in France and Italy -- his last visit. In 1884, he retired from Oxford to Brantwood, which he never left. ( http://www.nndb.com/people/221/000044089/ )
The “Ruskin Oak” legend
In 1983, the Ocean Springs Junior High School 8th Grade enrichment class supervised by Deanne Stephens Nuwer collected anecdotal histories of many local homes and landmarks. The Ruskin Oak was the object of one researcher. The following is the results of his study of the fabled tree.
The old oak tree, which is located on Ruskin Avenue, is named for John Ruskin, the famous art critic and social reformer. John Ruskin is said to have written Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite book.
John B. Arnold, the president of the Cotton Exchange built the house beside the oak for his wife’s summer cottage because he loved her so much. John Ruskin had been at the Cotton Exposition in New Orleans, so he visited his friends, the Arnolds, in Ocean Springs. During his visit, he attended a tea party under this tree in 1885.
The circumference of the tree is twenty feet and six inches. Its branch spread is more than 150 feet. This tree is a magnificent example of the beauty of Ocean Springs.
(Ocean Springs Mississippi: A look at the beautiful past of a beautiful city, 1983)
In addition, John B. Arnold, John Ruskin’s alleged host for the tea party at Ocean Springs was an Englishman.(Mississippi Gulf Coast Yesterday & Today (1699-1939), 1939, p. 91)
The World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition (1884-1885)
The World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition celebrated the 100th anniversary of the production, manufacture, and commerce of cotton. It was held in New Orleans from December 16, 1884 until it ended May 31, 1885. The idea for the fair was first advanced by the Cotton Planters Association, and the name World Cotton Centennial referred to the earliest surviving record of export of a shipment of cotton the United States to England in 1784. The planning and construction of the fair was marked by corruption and scandals, and Fair Director Edward A. Burke absconded to Brazil with over one and a half million dollars of the Fair treasury.
Despite such serious financial difficulties, the Fair succeeded in offering many attractions to visitors. It covered 249 acres, stretching from St. Charles Avenue to the Mississippi River, and was notable that it could be entered directly by railway, steamboat, or ocean-going ship. The main building enclosed 33 acres, and was the largest roofed structure constructed up to that time. It was illuminated with 5,000 electric lights, which was still a novelty at the time, and said to be 10 times the number of electric lights then existing in New Orleans. There was also a large USA Government & State Exhibits Hall, a Horticultural Hall, an observation tower with electric elevators, and working examples of multiple designs of experimental electric street-cars. The Mexican exhibit was particularly lavish and popular, constructed at a cost of $200,000 dollars, and featuring a huge brass band that was a great hit locally. In an unsuccessful attempt to recover some of the financial losses from the Fair, the grounds and structures were reused for the North Central & South American Exposition from November 1885 to March 1886 with no great success. After this the structures were publicly auctioned off, most going only for their worth in scrap. The site is today Audubon Park and Audubon Zoo in Uptown New Orleans.
Results at Ocean Springs
Besides the “Ruskin Hoak tree”, The World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition (1884-1885) gave Ocean Springs Parker Earle (1831-1917) and Miss-La-Bama. As related many times in this column, Parker Earle was the Horticultural Director of the Cotton Centennial at New Orleans. The Earle family was obviously impressed with coastal Mississippi for in July 1884, Charles T. Earle (1861-1901), Parker’s son, purchased twenty-five acres known as the Stuart Orange Grove from Elizabeth McCauley (1840-1925) and W.R. Stuart (1820-1894). This property was located on the Fort Point Peninsula, now generally known as Lovers Lane. During his short stay in Jackson County, Parker Earle founded what became the large, Rose-Money farm in the Old Fort Bayou community, now referred to as St. Martin.
The residence at present day 243 Front Beach Drive in Ocean Springs, Mississippi was erected as the Alabama headquarters for The World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition. The structure was described in 1885, as follows:
The headquarters were in an alcove jutting off from the building, and were very artistic in design, and after the Morro-Arabic style-planned after the celebrated Alhambra, of Spain, and built entirely of Alabama pine. The various pieces of wood were highly polished and the walls made still more attractive by pillars and arches carved in bas-relief. The headquarters were divided into a suite of rooms consisting of a private office and three reception rooms. Heavy damask curtains and choice rugs were displayed in harmony with elegant furniture.(Fairall, 1885, p. 31)
When the Cotton Centennial Exposition closed at New Orleans, William B. Schmidt (1823-1901), a wealthy wholesale grocer domiciled in the Crescent City, purchased the "Alabama Cottage." Schmidt had it barged down the Mississippi River and erected on his estate. The small structure was used by the children of the Schmidt family for plays and as a music studio. Appropriately, the Wulff sisters, Vera Wulff Cook (1906-1992) and Bernadine Wulff (1899-1992), who made names for themselves as chanteuses in the theaters and radio at New York and Chicago, owned the house from 1944 until 1971. Miss Bernadine Wulff called her home "Miss-La-Bama" because it had connections with all three states. Jan G. Walker has owned the old Schmidt music hall since December 1999. It has undergone many additions and alterations since it arrived here from New Orleans. Architect Bruce Tolar did a large addition for John J. “Jerry” Weigel (b. 1932) in 1990-1991.
The real Ruskin Oak legend?
In April 1958, Virginia L. “Duchess” Marmaduke (1908-2001), a pioneer woman journalist and Chicago radio personality, was visiting the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She was a native of Carbondale, Illinois, but was reared in Chicago. Miss Marmaduke was the first woman to report on hard news in the Windy City. Prior to her breaking into what had previously been an all male position, women in the newspaper world were expected to cover society, fashion, and entertainment, not murder, sex, and greed.( http://www.lib.niu.edu/ipo/ihy970458.html )
Miss Marmaduke was based at the Edgewater Gulf Hotel while on the Gulf Coast for three weeks. At this time, she was the feature writer for Station WMAQ-NBC at Chicago. While visiting Ocean Springs, Duchess became enamored with the Ruskin Oak. She utilized the hospitality of Steve Marden of The Ocean Springs News while in town. The Duchess talked with some of the local populace, including Naif Jordan (1907-1993), about the Ruskin Oak legend and heard several tales about the great tree. After a meditation session under the Ruskin Oak, Miss Marmaduke proposed the following as a plausible explanation for the Legend of the Ruskin Oak:
Once upon a time, long ago, a young southern boy chose this tree for hidden moments with Ruskin, the English poet. He had a book of the author’s poems but because it was considered sissy by his more robust brothers, he kept his poetry moments to himself.
Then one day a girl came to the tree and she LIKED the boy and his book of poems and they spent many hours together reading and studying the verse. Now he was the son of a Southern aristocrat. She was a carpetbagger’s daughter. They knew their friendship would be frowned on by both sides, so the big oak tree became their citadel. They used a code for their secret messages always naming the place of their trysts as “THE RUSKIN OAK.”
Then came the War Between the States. The quite southern boy didn’t want to fight so he hid out in the swamplands, coming in only at dark –to the big oak to meet with his sweetheart. One evening his book of Ruskin’s poems slipped from his pocket and was found the next day by one of his brothers. Since his name was inscribed on its flyleaf, a trap was set and the next time he returned to the tree he was captured and forced into service with the Confederate Army.
As the war became more bitter, the carpetbagger took his family back to the North and it looked like the romance of the Ruskin Oak would die with the tree.
Bit when the war was over, the boy’s regiment found itself at liberty in a State not to far from his Yankee sweetheart’s original home. He worked his way to her town.
Old timers say his proud Southern family would never admit it, but it was whispered that he had found her and that they went far west—to start a new family tree in a new part of the country.(The Ocean Springs News, April 10, 1958, p. 1)
In the spring of 1971, a free standing, bronze plaque was placed beneath the canopy of the Ruskin Oak by James W. Fraser (1902-1988) in memory of Edna Wood Fraser (d. 1968), his deceased wife. In 1952, Mrs. Fraser had written a poem lauding John Ruskin.(The Ocean Springs Record, April 29, 1971, p. 13)
Mrs. Fraser’s poem is engraved on the plaque and reads as follows:
To: John Ruskin (inspired beneath the Ruskin Oak)
Here was a man whose spirit-soul was free
To search for all the Beautiful and True
Unfound as winds that sweep the blue-washed sea,
With fearlessness he spoke, for what he knew, he knew!
He loved the truth! To him it was a flag
To be unfurled wherever ignorance stalked
He led the way-his courage never lagged---
Time marked his foot prints everywhere he walked.
And here beneath this mighty, ageless oak
With branches spread to catch the winds at play---
He stood in awe, while Truth and Beauty spoke,
And wrote her pages for another day………
This tree to him was God’s own masterpiece!
Each twig and leaf some ancient scripture told.
He loved God’s nature with her sweet release
Of secrets old as all the Earth is old.
Man walks with God who walks beneath the trees,
and feels their kinship in each leaf and limb---
John Ruskin walked---and from some unseen breeze his spirit smiles;
This living oak has honored him.
Edna Wood Fraser
Presented to the owners of the Ruskin Oak in memory of his beloved wife, Edna Wood Fraser, by James W. Fraser
Ocean Springs, Mississippi
October 1, 1970
Edna Wood Fraser
Edna Wood Fraser came to Ocean Springs with James Walter Fraser, her spouse, in 1964? Edna was a gifted writer and published poet. While at Los Angeles in the 1940s, a series of her poetry was published in Pathway to Posterity (1949). Edna and James wrote for The Ocean Springs News. She expired at Ocean Springs on October 1, 1968.(Georgia Shell Mitchell, December 2005)
Before her demise, Edna W. Fraser had planned a treatise on Sam Dale (1772-1841), the Virginia native who was to the Mississippi Territory what Daniel Boone (1734-1820) and Paul Revere (1735-1818) were to the nation. Dale fought in the War of 1812 and against the Creek Indians in Alabama. He was sent to the first General Assembly of Alabama, later serving in the Legislature from 1819 until 1828. Dale then settled near Meridian, Mississippi, where he was elected a representative from Lauderdale County in 1836. He died at Daleville, Lauderdale County, Mississippi in 1841.(The Ocean Springs Record, October 10, 1968, p.2 and www.archives.state.al.us/famous/s_dale.html )
In 1967, Harry Del Reeks (1920-1982), a former Marine combat artist and resident of Ocean Springs, was commissioned to create a memorial to Sam Dale. The Dale monument was suggested to be a part of the State Park system by US Representative G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery (b. 1920) of Meridian. Harry D. Reeks modeled the 22 ½-foot all, monument in clay. One hundred sixty-three moulds were made to replicate the clay model. They were assembled in the two-acre park and the monument was cast in liquid marble by Harry D. Reeks. Mr. Reeks spent over 2400 hours creating the Dale shrine.(The Ocean Springs Record, May 31, 1967, p. 1 and October 5, 1967, p. 1)
The Sam Dale memorial took longer than expected to complete. In fact after nearly a one year delay, it was presented to the public on October 13, 1968, at Daleville, Lauderdale County, Mississippi, which is located seventeen miles north of Meridian on Ms. Highway 39.(The Ocean Springs Record, October 12, 1967, p. 12 and October17, 1968, p.1)
Shortly after her demise, Edna Wood Fraser was eulogized by David McFalls (1912-1974) , editor and publisher of The Ocean Springs Record, as follows:
“we lost a talented person and most capable writer. Her sharp and able pen reported the City Council meeting for many years in The Ocean Springs News (which has also passed on). Everyone may not have agreed what she said but we all liked the way she said it.” (The Ocean Springs Record, October 10, 1968, p.2)
James W. Fraser placed another memorial to his beloved wife at their home on Jackson Avenue. The small bronze plaque now in the possession of Cindy Mitchell Peters, the niece of Bertha P. Fraser. It reads as follows:
Edna Wood Fraser beloved wife of James W. Fraser
Born many times, departed from this incarnation October 1, 1968. Her ashes mingle with the elements and sweet memories and happy hours shared with her dear ones in this garden and forevermore shall be a part of it.
After her death, James W. Fraser, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, married Bertha Shell Porterfield (1898-1987), the widow of Clarence L. Porterfield (1889-1952). Mr. Fraser had been a wire chief for the Southern Pacific Railroad at Los Angeles and a communications agent for the L&N Railroad. Bertha like her spouse was also a telegrapher for the L&N Railroad. She preceded James W. Fraser in death.(The Ocean Springs Record, January 14, 1988, p. 3 and (Georgia Shell Mitchell, December 2005)
John M. Alford, a retired physician and long time resident of Ocean Springs, has written a poem about the Oak tree. I find his work an appropriate way to conclude the chronology of the Ruskin Oak.
Behold The Oak
John M. Alford
Witness the mighty Oak where sun, wind, and wave
And beachcombers search exhausted sands in time
On tide for life’s flotsam.
Behold, the venerable Oak
Whose ancestors insured seeds of longevity
And fallen heir whose mandala of roots
Face a sea destined to reclaim it.
Behold the Oak, naysayer to Chaos
Detractor of men drunk with power
And tribes covet the land
And nations of self-aggrandizers.
Gulf Coast Oaks, locale’s giants
That beautify for people’s sake
That nurture for little creature’s sake
That glorify for Glory’s sake.
Behold the Oak, guardian of old
Defender of the Polis, crusher of tyrants’
With Delphic oracle in its fibers woman waits
To succor at stygian depths—fallen warrior.
A poet might say: “Perceive the Oak in its majesty.
Listen! It speaks on the wind. I was a warrior,
But no more. I have grown in grace since Eden.
Male and female am I, creation’s gift to begin.
Seek me! You will find me.”
Mississippi Gulf Coast Yesterday & Today (1699-1939), Federal Writers Project in Mississippi Works Progress Administration, (Gulfport Printing Company: Gulfport-1939).
Ocean Springs, Mississippi: A Look at the Beautiful Past of a Beautiful City, (Ocean Springs Junior High School 8th Grade Enrichment Class-1983, Deanne Nuwer, Editor), 76 pages.
Pathway To Posterity, (Exposition Press, New York, NY: 1949)
The Daily Herald, "Lovely Lots in Beautiful Ruskin Oaks Subdivision", September 7, 1954.
The Ocean Springs News, “Ruskin Oak, Ocean Springs Share Radio Spotlight”, April 10, 1958.
The Ocean Springs News, “Sam Dale monument is near completion”, May 31, 1967.
The Ocean Springs News, “To dedicate Magnolia Park”, July 5, 1967.
The Ocean Springs Record, “Final Moulds For Sam Dale Monument”, October 5, 1967.
The Ocean Springs Record, “Dedication postponed”, October 12, 1967.
The Ocean Springs Record, “Off the Record”, October 10, 1968.
The Ocean Springs Record, “Sam Dale Unveiling Held Last Sunday”, October 17, 1968.
The Ocean Springs Record, “Memorial placed at magnificent Ruskin Oak”, April 29, 1971.
The Ocean Springs Record, “James Fraser”, January 14, 1988.
Jackson Foote, Illinois History, “The Duchess-A Journalism Pioneer”, April 1997.