First lady of Louisiana forestry
By James Barnett and Sara Troncale
Early in the 20th century, the practice of forestry in America was in its infancy. Its proponents were strong-willed men with a determined focus. Women were not and would not become involved in this male-dominated profession for decades. It was this environment in which Caroline Dormon became involved and aggressively pursued her interests.
She was a quiet and unassuming woman who never married and was not intimidated by the challenges of advancing her conservation views. She is recognized today as a pioneer conservationist, forester, botanist, illustrator and as a native plant enthusiast. She was so effective in pursuing her agenda she has become recognized as one of eight people who have significantly influenced America’s natural history.
Caroline C. “Carrie” Dormon was born on July 19, 1888, to James Alexander Dormon and Caroline Trotti Dormon at their summer home (named Briarwood) near Saline in north Louisiana. Briarwood is on plantation land that belonged to Caroline’s grandfather and was the traditional site for the family’s annual six-week vacation. The Dormons cherished their time spent each year at Briarwood, which offered the family a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the serenity of the forest and the wildlife of the area. Most of the year the Dormons resided at their home in Arcadia in Bienville Parish. Yet, it was the forested Briarwood site that Caroline would long regard as her beloved home.
Caroline was blessed to have an exceptional family. Her father was a well-respected lawyer and reputed to be one of the ablest men of the Louisiana Bar. He supported his family in comfort and gave them all a good education. He insisted that all their eight children, including their two daughters, Virginia and Caroline, attend college.
Caroline’s mother enjoyed literature and she is remembered by her emphasis on reading and studying. She enjoyed writing poems and stories and even wrote a novel titled “Under the Magnolias” that was published in 1902. She had a good knowledge of flora and maintained a formal rose garden. She taught her children to garden and to identify birds by their songs.
It was Caroline’s father, though, who trained the children in the ways of a naturalist. James taught his children to appreciate nature at an early age. During camping trips into the woods, he would point out all sorts of animals, flowers and trees and taught Caroline both the scientific and common names. If he did not know a name, they would find it by researching the unknown plant or animal in their home library. James Dormon never tired in his study of nature and he encouraged his children’s interest in the subject.
Caroline happily lived as a “tomboy” exploring the outdoors until the age of sixteen when she went to college. Caroline attended Judson, a private college at Marion, Alabama. At first, she felt uncomfortable around her schoolmates, but after some time Caroline gained more self-confidence.
“I did not have to be pretty, I did not have to have beautiful clothes,” she would later recall. “I could just be myself.”
Her teachers and classmates recognized her thorough knowledge and awareness of the natural world. She would question, observe, research and explore her subject matter.
She graduated from Judson College in 1907 with a degree in literature and art. She taught for several years in Louisiana schools, but in 1918, Dormon moved with her sister back to Briarwood where she became increasingly interested in forest conservation and native plant collecting.
During this time in the early 20th century, the virgin longleaf pine forests were being aggressively harvested. Dormon became determined to save some of these forests. Her dream was to preserve an area of virgin pine and establish a national forest in the Kisatchie Hills of northwest Louisiana. She and her sister traveled throughout the area in a Model T Ford identifying areas to suggest as a future national forest.
When Miss Dormon read there was to be a Southern Forestry Congress held in New Orleans in 1918, she attended and proposed preservation of some of the virgin forests. Soon afterward, Caroline was invited to attend a forestry meeting in Jackson, Mississippi, where she met and discussed her concerns with Col. William Greeley, chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Greeley sent his representative, W.W. Ashe, to meet Dormon in Natchitoches.
He and other Forest Service foresters met with Miss Dormon and traveled on several occasions through the vast area included in the Kisatchie Hills, but determined Louisiana did not have an enabling act that would allow the government to purchase land in the state. Caroline became frustrated with the lack of progress because more and more of the old-growth forests were being harvested.
With the help of one of her lawyer brothers, Caroline wrote an Enabling Act. This she sent to Henry Hardtner, then a state senator, who included it in a forestry bill he was presenting. It passed and become law.
In 1929, the first unit of the Kisatchie National Forest was purchased. Because of her influence in establishing the national forest, she was asked to suggest a name for it. She provided the name Kisatchie. The name was derived from a tribe of Kichai Indians of the Caddoan Confederacy, who called themselves “Kitsatchies.”
Meanwhile, Dormon became acquainted with Mrs. A.F. Storm, president of the Louisiana Federation of Women’s Clubs, and served as her state chair of conservation and forestry. Caroline gave countless lectures to clubs, schools, churches, Scouts and other youth and adult groups. She learned that she was more successful in changing opinions by working with the wives of influential men than appealing to the men directly. As conservation chairman, she served on the legislative committee to study the state’s forestry laws. In 1921, she was hired by M.L. Alexander, commissioner of Conservation, to handle publicity for the Division of Forestry as an education specialist. She initiated an aggressive forestry education program in public schools.
In this role, she prepared Arbor Day programs, wrote tree books, conducted teacher workshops, prepared bulletins and art work, and established long-lasting programs in conservation across the state. This position lasted just two years. Her supervisor, State Forester V.H. Sonderegger had difficulty in supervising anyone with more education than him — he had graduated from the Biltmore Forest School’s one-year program. She returned to the position in 1927 for about a year, when Sonderegger was replaced by a different forester. Her work was well respected, however, and the state forester of Mississippi offered her a similar position with better pay. She declined because she did not want to leave her beloved Louisiana.
Leading Role in Louisiana
Dormon had confidence Louisiana could be the leading state in lumber production and therefore advocated wise management of Louisiana’s forestlands, reforestation and protection from forest fires. She often boasted of Louisiana’s many achievements in the field of forestry — the establishment of the Division of Forestry, model forestry laws, fire protection laws and the state forest tree nursery. She also promoted the establishment of a national forest in the state.
Because of her significant contributions to forestry, Caroline Dormon was the first woman to be elected associate member of the Society of American Foresters.
“Miss Dormon was the first and most persistent worker for National Forests in Louisiana ... Without question, her efforts have helped shape Louisiana opinion on this policy,” the Forest Service’s Ashe stated in a letter urging the SAF to accept her into the organization.
She is called the “Mother of the Kisatchie National Forest” because of these unique contributions. In a 1922 issue of American Forests, Caroline was recognized as the only woman working professionally in forestry. Ashe wrote her later that “foresters from all over the eastern United States know of your work.”
Her expertise in other fields was also recognized and she was employed as a beautification and landscape consultant for several state and private gardens. In 1941, Dormon joined the Louisiana Highway Department as beautification consultant. She was later a landscape consultant for the Huey P. Long Charity Hospital in Pineville, Hodges Gardens (which was a state park) and Louisiana State Arboretum.
She did not serve long in these positions because of her great desire to return to her Briarwood home.
Caroline did not pursue any career but followed her passionate desire to study, share and preserve her natural surroundings. A favorite activity was the testing, propagating and hybridizing plants, particularly the native Louisiana iris. Her plant paintings have been described as “scientifically accurate and incredible in detail.” These have been exhibited in numerous art galleries and museums.
Caroline stayed in financial difficulty. Her friends encouraged her to concentrate on one money-making prospect, such as her paintings and not involve herself with so many other endeavors. However, she could never be satisfied limiting herself to one field — forestry, botany, horticulture, conservation, ornithology, archeology, ethnology, literature, art, education or preservation. She wanted to do it all — and she did.
The author of several books, Dormon’s most notable are “Wild Flowers of Louisiana” and “Forest Trees of Louisiana,” now collector’s items. Six other major publications deal mostly with native iris species.
She received four medals from the American Iris Society for developing outstanding hybrids of Louisiana irises. In these books, and the hundreds of articles, lectures, newspaper pieces she wrote, a steadily increasing sense of urgency is shown to educate the public on the need for conservation.
In 1965, in recognition of her lifetime achievements, Louisiana State University conferred on her the honorary degree of Doctor of Science.
Yet none of Dormon’s varied pursuits were driven by a desire for public commendation.
“All my … life I have gone quietly about the work I love, with no expectation of awards or rewards …” Dormon explained. “I simply loved nature, always, and could no more have stopped studying birds, flowers and trees and drawing pictures of them, than I could have stopped breathing! … I wasn’t ambitious; I was just doing what I loved.”
It is interesting to note that when Philip C. Wakeley was recruited by the Forest Service in 1924 to work on reforestation needs, he mentions there were fewer than 20 professionally trained foresters in the entire South. In this male dominated field, Caroline Dormon had already been working for several years as an advocate for forest conservation and forestry education. It would be many decades before any other woman would assume such a leadership role in forestry. This distinguished, accomplished and intrepid woman is rightly called the “Louisiana’s first lady of forestry.”
Shortly before her death in 1971, friends suggested she donate her Briarwood estate to a foundation that would become a center for educational purposes in conservation. Today Briarwood, near Saline, is a nature preserve honoring Caroline Dormon’s remarkable contributions to conservation. It is open to visitors for tours and other events during the summer months.
(James Barnett, emeritus scientist, Southern Research Station, U.S. Forest Service and Sara Troncale, science teacher, Rapides Parish school system.)