Summer 2011 TREE Fund Report: A Tree (Still) Grows in Kewanee


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By Guy Sternberg
Starhill Forest Arboretum

It was mid-December 2009 when I got the phone call: “The historic Potter Farm Osage-orange in Kewanee, IL is tilting; they plan to take it down on Tuesday before it falls on someone!”

This was one of the first “hedgerow” trees planted in the 1840’s by Illinois College professor Jonathan Baldwin Turner, founder of the US Land Grant University System. The Kewanee tree is a male (fruitless) Osage-orange that had survived while an entire city grew up around it. A sidewalk touched its buttress on the west, and a state highway crowded its base on the east. Its root system had been so abused over the past century that any lesser species would have gone to Arbor-Heaven decades ago. But this was Maclura, a miracle tree with amazing decay resistance and regenerative powers.

I spent the weekend rallying support for a plan to save the tree. Skeptical at first, the city finally agreed to consider alternatives to euthanasia, beginning with the pruning of about two tons of wood from the down-lean side of the tree (directly over Main Street). Before long the tree had a bank account, a facebook page and on-air advocacy from Chicago radio host Mike Nowak. Local news coverage and a National Park Service podcast swelled the ranks of supporters. Among them was Board Certified Master Arborist Guy Meilleur of North Carolina who, like many others, volunteered his time and expertise to help save the tree.

In June 2010, a major storm lashed Kewanee with 70mph winds. When the storm passed, Main Street was littered with broken limbs and shredded leaves but the Osage-orange was unscathed. Here was proof that our faith in this tree was justified. In July the 2010 STIHL Tour des Trees stopped by to pose for pictures and bestow a Tour des Trees blessing upon the tree. The riders encircled the tree and chanted “Live, tree, LIVE” in bold, synchronized cadence. I believe the tree stood a bit taller after that encouragement; I know I did.

The following February I returned with “Gusto” Meilleur to collect cuttings from the tree which we took to the Brenton Arboretum in Iowa, where Curator Andy Schmitz is assembling a national collection of Osage-orange.

Isn’t this what we’re all about? Trees with a long and documented history like this one are a living connection to our past and our future. Passionate arborists, armed with knowledge born of research and the backing of the media and 75 sweaty cyclists, succeeded in saving an historic tree from an untimely and unnecessary demise. Our hope is that its progeny will eventually shade future citizens of Kewanee, perhaps inspiring others to a lifetime of environmental advocacy.

A tree can live seven times longer than a human, but just one thoughtless human generation can foil the good work of all of those that came before it. Thanks to the efforts of an inspired group of tree advocates this tree lives on to share its story, and theirs.

Live, tree, LIVE!

Donations to the “Kewanee Osage-orange Fund” can be sent c/o People’s National Bank of Kewanee, 207 North Tremont Street, Kewanee, IL 61443. Thank you!

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