Thursday, July 20, 2006

Death of a giant

As they waited, everyone said that if the tree could talk, what stories it would tell.

Actually, the tree was talking. Now and then a pop would come from deep in the bowels of the old cottonwood, a groan of fibers strained to the breaking point, and then it would quiet as if marshalling its strength. A slight breeze fanned the leaves.

The tree had been there for as long as they could remember. Longer.

Sometime in the mid-1800s it sprouted near the banks of the Big Blue River. As it grew a town grew with it, spreading to the south and east and, for a while, to the north. Bridges spanned the river, railroad tracks were laid, and prosperity of sorts came to the town of Blue Rapids. Decades passed. The river took the bridges and the stone buildings on its banks. Fire took more. The river shifted north and the Corps of Engineers threw up a levee to keep it there. The tree kept growing.

In the collective memory of the town, the tree was always there.

A photograph dated Oct. 24, 1913, shows a group of baseball players huddling in conversation while behind them a batter prepares to swing. On the left, the tree anchors the sky. It towers above a line of cars ringing the stadium at Riverside Park. Even then it was old.

A headline in the Blue Rapids Centennial, published in 1970, declared it the “Largest Tree in Kansas.” The accompanying article watered it down with a half-hearted disclaimer, adding that it’s not certain, but “possible.”

Thirty-two years later the Kansas Forest Service arrived to measure it against the record-holder, a 116’ monster in Ozawkie. By that time a portion of the crest had fallen and the forester didn’t have the right tools, but a good estimation put the tree somewhere in the top ten for that species. The base had a circumference of 27’ 3”. It was a big tree.

Now it was dying.

Early in the morning of Friday, July 14, a main bough split off and fell to the ground. A gaping hole exposed a crude platform propped up by wooden posts, a tree house built not on a limb but in a cavity. The missing section threw the rest of the tree out of balance, and another main bough sagged over the fence separating the arena from the park. One limb kissed a power line.

This created headaches for the Marshall County Fair Board and the city, because the fair had started and figure 8 races were scheduled the next day. Directly beneath that hanging bough the pit stop crews would be stationed. The city crew inspected the tree and asked the fair board to find a tree removal company. Fast.

Kurtz Tree Service arrived an hour later. While Terry Kurtz, the owner, and his assistant, Justin Cooper, detailed a plan of attack, their families spread out on the lawn. Kids played in the shade across the road. Their wives hovered around them, sizing up the tree and worrying about their husbands’ safety. Fair board members gathered in conference. The smell of raw wood was strong. Where the bark had stripped off the sinews were exposed, slick with moisture. Singularly or in pairs people walked over and laid their hands on it, as if in benediction.

KP&L was summoned to cut the power. Kurtz spotted a bee swarm near a crook where they had intended on sawing. Someone went to call a beekeeper. Just as KP&L drove up the bough shuddered and bent to the ground in a gentle arc, taking the line and the bees with it.

The tree now leaned to the north. Kurtz chainsawed sections of the fallen bough into manageable pieces, which were then dragged off by a dozer. Once space was cleared around the trunk, men rushed around looking for heavy lengths of chain. They would try to pull the tree down with the dozer.

It was steamy and blazing hot. Bob Lindquist dispensed iced bottles of water.

“I always called it ‘my tree,’” Cooper said. He gulped down the water and wiped sweat from his eyes.

“I used to park my car under it in the derby,” he said. “My dad did, too.” His father, Kenneth Cooper, was in the pit crew in 1972 and 1973 for driver Dave Paxton, who took first place both years. Cooper said his father called it his “good luck tree.” Although, Cooper said, he has driven in demolition derby, he isn’t planning on entering this year. “I never had any luck.” Now he was cutting the tree down.

Someone asked about the tree house. “My dad used to live over there,” Jim Flower, a city worker, said, pointing to a house a hundred yards away. “He used to come over and smoke cigarettes in the tree where his mom couldn’t see him.”

“Did he build the tree house?” someone asked.

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Kenny Feldhausen, a board member, parked the dozer a distance from the northwest side of the tree. Men scrambled to link chains together while Kurtz lifted Cooper in a bucket to drape a chain around the trunk. Everyone drew back as the dozer started up. It backed slowly until the chain was taut.

The tree groaned but remained erect. Kurtz attacked the opposite side of the trunk with a long chainsaw. Wood chips flew in an angry whine. The tree gave a loud crack, shook as if angry, and then tilted to the northwest. Its fall was slow and graceful but it hit with a sustained whoomph that sucked the breath out of everybody there.

It was almost preternaturally quiet. Men, looking dazed, walked to the tree and inspected it. Carpenter ants scurried around; on the opposite side of the fence was a loud drone of bees. The smell of wood and mold was stronger now. The sky looked too open, naked somehow.

“That couldn’t have come down any better,” Kurtz said.

Cooper gathered up his chainsaw. A trickle of blood had dried on his cheek.

Kurtz slapped his hands together and walked over to his family. “That’s all, folks,” he said.


Laurel Johnson said...

I'm no spring chicken any more but that tree was old when I was a youngster participating in track meets in Blue Rapids.

Thank you for the photos and the wonderful Parkeresque memorial.

Anonymous said...

Here are some links that I believe will be interested