With this Friday being Arbor Day, let us take a moment to examine some of this city’s famous foliage.
Independence Elm (1781)
During colonial times the city was just two muddy streets– a small collection of homes surrounding the church and graveyard. Word of the Continental Congress was slow to reach our isolated hamlet, but by 1781 “independence” was the buzzword. A copy of the Bill of Rights was posted on an enormous elm tree in the cemetery behind a church. For weeks during July and August the community gathered around the tree to debate the war against England. (By this point, the outcome of the war had actually been decided, but news was slow to reach the hinterlands). The English garrison, disturbed by the rambunctious rabble-rousers, tore down the document and posted a guard in graveyard. The city population, whipped into a frenzy of anti-Anglo agitation, and wanting to strike a blow before the war was officially over, attacked the guard and drove him from the cemetery. He returned moments later with reinforcements. According to city legend, a pitched battled ensued, and five villagers were killed. The battle passed into history, and the elm was celebrated as a meeting place for liberty– a commemorative plate featuring a picture of the elm was produced for the 1876 centennial. During an archeological investigation in 1976, musket shells from the period were removed from the tree, thus lending credibility to the battle story that was once considered apocryphal. The tree succumbed to Dutch elm disease in 1980, but shells from the famous battle and a ring from the tree can be seen on display at the Watson Museum of Furniture and City History.
Sycamore Street (1868)
Fast forward eighty years, and the city had changed drastically from its colonial beginnings. In the eighteen-sixties, our city was experiencing a boom from lumber, mining and an embryonic textile industry. Jacob Rutledge, city council president, mining tycoon, and man-about-town decided to begin a city beautification campaign. He was tired of wagons becoming bogged down in unpaved thoroughfares, particularly in front of his palatial estate (on present-day Sycamore Street near South Birch). After spending a morning listening to a mule driver curse his team as they descended deeper into the muddy morass, Rutledge decided to take action. That summer he began construction of the famous wooden streets. Beginning in front of his manor, he laid wooden planks across the boulevard, initially he used sycamore, but switching to pine when the costs became too high. Despite this change, the street acquired the nickname “Sycamore Street”, which became its official designation in 1888. The wooden streets became a calling card for our city, and were even featured on city stationary for a time, with the motto “City of Progress.” Slowly the wooden streets were replaced with concrete, which posed less of a fire hazard. The last section of remaining planks, in front of the Rutledge Estate, was removed in 1912 to make room for the new trolley system.
America’s Tallest Flowering Eucalyptus (1899)
Mabel Tripp Gardens, our city’s botanical centerpiece, is home to the nation’s tallest flowering eucalyptus. It was grown from a seed planted in 1899 to commemorate the dawn of the new century. The seed was carried half-way around the world in a velvet pouch, presented as a gift from the Archduke of New South Wales. The seed and tree it created represent a connection with one of our sister cities—Brisbane, Australia. (In return we sent them a sample of our famous shrub, the Western Creeper). The tree was nearly destroyed during a wave of anti-Aussie hysteria immediately following the first outbreak of Queensland Fever. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed, and the tree was spared. Seedlings from this tree have provided specimens for the National Botanical Gardens, and the tree was featured in the documentary Famous Trees In Our City (1977). During a two-year period in the 1970’s, environmental activist Paulis Stevenson climbed the tree daily to promote renewable agriculture.
Oakland Drive (1951)
Visitors to Oakland Drive today are certain to enjoy an unparalleled shopping experience, with its pedestrian mall, used sporting good warehouse and ample parking. But someone traveling down Oakland Drive sixty years ago would have seen a very different vista—miles and miles of oak trees that gave the road its name. Enter acorn farmer Wally K. Franklin. The oak groves on either side of Oakland Drive had been in the Franklin family since the Civil War. Wally eked out a living making acorn flour and acorn paste, which he primarily sold to the military. During the Eisenhower years, the military’s demand for acorn paste decreased exponentially, and Wally needed to look for a new way to make a living. Taking advantage of a post-war building boom, Wally auctioned off the oaks and made a killing in the lumber business. Flush with cash, he created the Oakland Pedestrian Mall and Tabernacle. The mall soon attracted foot traffic and business thrived, but Wally’s main focus was on his great Oak Tabernacle, which he envisioned as a non-denominational tourist attraction/church. He recruited the finest craftsmen to create elegantly carved oak pews, and oak altarpiece shaped like an acorn. He hired architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design an oak organ (the blueprints were completed, but never constructed). The Tabernacle enjoyed immediate success, but its prosperity was short-lived. In his desire to construct the building entirely of oak, Franklin declined to install an up to date sprinkler system. On Palm Sunday 1952, a large pile of fronds caught fire and within minutes the entire building was consumed. Wally never recovered from the loss, and left the city soon after. The pedestrian mall continued to thrive, and was opened to automobile traffic in 2001.
– M. Vermeulen