Cypress Lake (Lafayette, Louisiana)
|Basin countries||United States|
|Surface area||2 acres (0.8 ha)|
Cypress Lake is a 2-acre (0.8 ha) swamp-like lake in the heart of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus that started as a buffalo wallow. Today it is a unique university landmark that is a habitat for native irises, alligators, turtles, birds and fish, as well as a hangout for students and a point of interest for tourists visiting Lafayette, Louisiana. Cypress Lake is casually called "The Swamp," which is also the nickname of the Louisiana–Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns stadium, named Cajun Field.
In prehistoric times, buffalo herds wandering through the area stopped in the shade of the cypress grove, pawing and stomping at the ground. Eventually a depression in the ground formed from the buffalos. The grove, called a trou de taureau in Cajun French, or “bull hole,” began to retain water and form a pond.
UL Lafayette (est. 1898) grew up around the pond. Initially the university fenced it in to use as a pig pen and feeding area for its instructional farm. In the early 1920s, the pig pen was drained to return the 63 cypress trees into the newly named Cypress Grove. The university used the grove as an open-air theater for Shakespearean productions, music and dance programs. Commencement exercises were held beneath the cypress canopy in 1935 for the first time and several subsequent years when the weather permitted.
In the early 1940s, some agriculture faculty members proposed converting the grove back into a pond, because they were concerned a lack of water could harm the cypress trees. A pump was installed, the pond was refilled, and Cypress Grove became Cypress Lake.
An oak tree located south of Cypress Lake has a plaque paying tribute to Edwin Stephens, the first president of the university, which was then called Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute.
An alternate theory exists to explain why the grove was converted back to a small lake. This one is counter to the theory that the trees needed water. Either could be correct.
The differing view is that the university created the lake as a precautionary measure during World War II. Two women with strong ties to the university, Maria Mario Mamalakis and Vesta Bourgeois, participated in the oral history project in which their memories of Cypress Lake were recorded in the mid-’80s.
“People didn’t realize that we were so near the gulf and had a lot of German submarines in the gulf area,” said Mamalakis, explaining why the university decided to create the lake. “It was a worry that we could even be bombed. It was Cypress Grove for many years, but they were afraid that we might need extra water in case of fire if a bomb had been dropped on campus.” Bourgeois concurred, adding that female students filled the swamp and conducted fire drills.
“They realized that if the Germans came to the gulf south of Abbeville they would bomb not us, but the vulnerable place, Baton Rouge,” Bourgeois explained. “If they had to come back with bombs (in their airplanes), they would not go back to the ship, but would drop them at some vulnerable place, and Southwestern would have been one.
“So they began preparing for this type thing, and they saw that there was no water. So they put water (in the grove), and we began teaching girls at the gym bucket brigades. So we had ladders, and an obstacle course for the girls to run, realizing that all of our men went into the service, and the others were in the National Guard or volunteers, so that the women would have to do these sorts of things. That’s how Cypress Grove was filled. Not many people knew that.”
Although the grove was a popular gathering place and was even used as a lovers' lane, students accepted the swamp because it was part of the war effort, according to Bruce Turner, a UL Lafayette history professor and head of the special collections at Edith Garland Dupré Library.
“I’m sure if they made the case that it was being done for war preparedness, then for patriotic reasons, people would accept that,” Turner said. “It was right in the middle of World War II, and everyone was concerned. Everybody was willing to make sacrifices for the war.”
Notable media references
- In 1962, Life magazine photographed students ice skating on the lake when it froze over.
- In the late 1980s, Cypress Lake was a question on the game show Jeopardy! under a category of college landmarks.