Massive oak at Heritage Park on Historic Trees Register

By James Saxton
Times Correspondent

As a sapling, it would have been passed by the Creek Nation of Native Americans in their wagon trains. As a young tree it spread its limbs even before English settlers, led by James Edward Oglethorpe, arrived in Georgia in the 1730s.

The willow oak would have been filtering the summer sun when McDonough was founded in 1823. It was likely some 150 years old, as a wing of Union General Sherman’s army moved through the area in 1864, that at least one unit traveled just 600 feet from the tree along the well-traveled road now known as Georgia Highway 81.

Pausing in front of a huge willow oak at Heritage Park is master gardener Mildred Chamblee, who initiated efforts years ago to protect it as a historic tree. At left is the George Nolan House, an antebellum house relocated there 10 years ago. Photo by James Saxton

Today the more than 300-year-old willow oak soars more than 86 feet in the sky, spreads 70-90 feet wide and provides an abundant canopy of shade for the serene park benches beneath it on the northern grounds of Heritage Park, next to the George Nolan House.

Last week the tree was honored at a dedication service, marking its placement on the Georgia Urban Forest Council’s Landmark and Historic Trees Register.

“This (dedication) means so much to me,” said master gardener Mildred Chamblee. “I’d helped the government take data in past years in the Pacific Northwest, and you could see how big the trees there were. Then when I saw this tree, just so big and so lovely, well, I just fell in love with it right away.”

So the former science teacher said she got to work making sure that the tree was preserved as a historic tree. “I found the registry, and started getting all the data together, traced (its history) in the archives, and then we applied for a listing. It was accepted and now we have the plaque that shows our beautiful tree is registered. It’s protected now. We all try to take care of it the best we can.”

The tree means much to Heritage Park, too, Chamblee said. “It substantiates the heritage. All the things that are in Heritage Park were things that were brought in from around the county. Well, this tree is the heritage. It was here before any of that was, or any of us.”

At the dedication service, master arborist Daniel Bauer agreed. “It’s kind of amazing when you think about the history, the size and the magnitude of what this tree has gone through to make it here today.”

“What’s happened in Henry County in 300 years,” Bauer said, “this tree has been through a lot.” Threats to it have been plenty, with so many people over all those years passing by on the highway close to it, plus accelerated urban development, pollution, wind storms, lightning storms, ice storms and insects. “So my congratulations to you guys in this community for taking care of this thriving tree, and taking ownership of it, because that’s what helps keep trees going – someone taking responsibility and saying, ‘This is our tree.’”

“The tree is roughly 300 years old,” said Bauer, one of the world’s fewer than 500 board-certified master arborists. “We can’t officially determine its exact age without cutting it down, but we can make educated guesses.

“A water oak may last 100 years, a white oak may live 500 years, and a live oak may live 1,500 years,” he said. “If it’s growing with the right conditions, a willow oak will last 400 to 450 years, so later generations still have another 100 or 150 years with this tree. The water runoff on this hill is focused in this tree’s direction, which is helping it. So this tree is just thriving; it wants to do well.”

The willow oak is a predominately Southern tree, native to Georgia and is increasingly introduced into landscapes, said Bauer, president of Arbor Equity, a tree service company in Covington. “As a species, it’s one of the more desired oaks, especially for urban environments. It’s rather hardy, drought tolerant, and deals well with insects and other urban stresses.”

Moved next to the tree is the George Nolan House, previously located at 37 Brown Ave., McDonough, and relocated to Heritage Park in May 2006. It has its own history. The antebellum wood frame house, built before the Civil War by attorney George Nolan sometime after his arrival in 1853, was moved in 1905 from Griffin Street to Brown Avenue.

The garden surrounding the Nolan House at Heritage Park features plants cultivated in the mid-19th century, about the time the house was built. The garden was designed and planted in 2006 and a decade later continues to be maintained by Henry County Master Gardener Extension Volunteers, through a program featuring more than 50 homegrown master gardeners and interns assisting the Henry County Extension Office of the University of Georgia.

Master gardener volunteers and interns are involved in gardening and community improvement programs, plant clinics and horticulture projects. Certification involves 24 classes that begin in January of each year. For more information, go to www.uga /henry.

Johnna Garrison was strolling through the park with her granddaughter Marta, 3, and saw that more than a dozen had gathered at the base of the tree for the dedication. “I just had to ask a lady what was going on,” she said. “When she told me I told her, ‘Oh that’s so important.’ And it really is.

“We’ve got to stop just bulldozing down all the forests and putting up these concrete subdivisions with little old scrawny scrub trees,” she said. “It may cost more, but keep some big trees, just cut out enough to put in a foundation and driveway, and leave the rest. Big trees keep your house cooler in the summer and they filter our air. I want Marta to have big, great trees all around her like my grandparents and I grew up with. If we don’t change our ways, they won’t survive.”

Survival is why Mildred Chamblee said she wanted to protect this willow oak. Not too far away, one like it was sawed down in the middle of the night, she said. “It just made me sick. There was no reason to saw it down.”

And although the huge tree is lush with green leaves for now, Chamblee said that one of her favorite things about this willow oak is that there’s something lovely to see as it turns to brilliant oranges and golds, and even when it goes bald. “It’ll lose all its leaves, and of course they’ll come back in the spring. But come on back in late fall and see its branching pattern. It’s gorgeous.”