Rip Van Winkle Gardens in New Iberia marries history, preservation and conservation
At a Glance
Rip Van Winkle Gardens consists of approximately 15 acres of semi-tropical gardens that include irises, magnolias, camellias, azaleas, hibiscus, and springtime bulbs.
The grounds of Rip Van Winkle Gardens include a schoolhouse built in the 1930s for the salt mining community. It now serves as a home for birds — including macaws, cockatoos, and African grey parrots — whose owners have died.
Philadelphia-born actor Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905) toured the world performing his most famous role, Washington Irving’s character Rip Van Winkle. “And like Rip, he was beloved, as beloved as Bob Hope or Jack Benny,” writes Arthur W. Bloom in “Joseph Jefferson: Dean of the American Theatre.” “His death … made front-page national headlines.” Jefferson bought hunting property on land then known as Orange Island. On this property in 1870, he built a mansion, complete with a fourth-story cupola. The house, which is on the island now named after its owner, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Jefferson Island. Nov. 20, 1980. 5:45 a.m.
A rhythmic shaking jolted her awake. Fifteen minutes later, during their daily jog, Vickie Richard told her brother, Mike Richard, about the experience. Strange, they both agreed, but it was still dark, and details about the day’s work at Rip Van Winkle Gardens demanded their immediate attention. Now, more than 40 years later, Mike Richard, who began his horticultural apprenticeship at the gardens in 1969 and has worked here ever since, stares at the brick chimney that rises from Lake Peigneur. It’s all that remains of the house, long since burned, where the gardens’ previous owners lived.
“The catastrophe broke the earth,” Richard says of that day when the house sank 30 feet from its original elevation.
At 7 a.m., he felt the garden grounds rumble for the first time. “There was a lot of glass in the new reception center,” says Richard, president of Live Oak Gardens Ltd., which, since 2003, has owned Rip Van Winkle Gardens. That glass now trembled. For a minute, it ceased before the earth pulsed once again. This cycle continued in intervals throughout the morning.
Two hours later, the superintendent of Diamond Crystal Salt Company rushed in to inform Richard that a Texaco oil rig had accidentally punctured the salt mine beneath Lake Peigneur. By then, the oil rig had vanished beneath the lake’s surface. Richard gestures to the last place he saw it, 43 years ago. “Employees were running to their cars,” he says. “People thought the whole place was going to sink.”
Fifty-two miners remained stuck underground, some as deep as 1,800 feet. Water flooded into the mine. The superintendent feared they would all be trapped. He floated the idea of evacuating the entire island — immediately.
All 52 miners eventually surfaced safely. The oil rig, along with one other, never emerged. The mine never reopened. In the aftermath, Richard realized that Rip Van Winkle Gardens faced a new challenge: groundwater quality had changed drastically. Four decades later, it’s still a daily complication.
“A week after the catastrophe, we noticed that certain plants had turned as yellow as orange juice,” he says. Historically, water has flowed here from the Chicot aquifer. The breach in the salt mine shifted water flow. Now contaminated, that water carried more minerals, among them calcium, magnesium and iron carbonates.
To save Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Richard constructed four ponds, each at different elevations and consisting of different habitats. Water moves from pond to pond to aerate and eliminate iron carbonate. From the fourth and deepest pond, the water returns to the nursery. “We started to see the benefits right away,” Richard says.
As part of his never-ending work to keep the gardens alive and beautiful, Richard also built a rookery between two of the ponds. Today it’s aflutter with great egrets, roseate spoonbills and great American herons. Smiling, he points to another of the pond’s residents. “Alligators are enforcers,” he says. For this reason, Richard refuses to cull them. “What they provide is kind of like an extortion. They say, ‘We’re going to take care of the snakes and coons.’ They keep the rookery thriving.”
After the catastrophe, Richard learned that the government maintained two seismic recording stations within seven miles of Jefferson Island. The stations triangulated the salt mine puncture to 5:45 a.m., the moment that Vickie Richard felt the first tremor. Later still, Mike Richard and his 4-year-old son, Mike Jr., were walking beside Lake Peigneur. Below, Richard Sr. thought he spotted a rock or stone tool and asked his son to get it. Richard Jr. grasped it and looked toward his father. “It’s a tooth,” he said. The event that swallowed two oil rigs had unearthed a mastodon.
They soon found more remnants: a jawbone, a tusk, more teeth. Eventually, they uncovered two more mastodons. Richard Jr. later attended school for paleontology. Now he manages Live Oak Gardens Wholesale Nursery on Jefferson Island. Richard’s daughter, Michelle, manages Rip Van Winkle Gardens. His wife, Louise, developed the recipes and menus at Café Jefferson, which overlooks Lake Peigneur. “I’m technically retired,” Richard says, laughing. There’s always more work, and now it’s time to feed the gardens’ 24 peacocks. He knows many by name.