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James R. Stout

The Old Cottonwood

            In 1950 my grandfather purchased the last part of his farm. He paid $22 an acre for the adjoining 100 acres to the rest of his farm. I sure wish I could buy land like this for $22 acre today! When he purchased the land about 30 acres of it was already cleared by the previous owner. Grandpa’s plan was to clear another 50 acres to plant corn and grow hay. It took about 3 years for him to get it done, but when he was finished, he had 5 large pastures and two sections of trees. Most of the trees were along the two main creeks that run through the property. By the time I can remember, sometime in the late 50’s or about 1960, he had about 30 acres of corn, 40 acres of hay, and a 1-acre garden in which he grew vegetables for my grandparent’s consumption. I remember walking through the corn fields and being small enough that I couldn’t see any more than down the row I was on. During the late summer and fall my grandmother would take me and my sisters with her to the garden to pick the various ripe vegetables. We set on the front porch shelling peas, snapping beans, washing potatoes, and shucking the corn on the cob. This would usually be late in the afternoon when the sun was in the west and the front porch was bathed in shade. We would talk about the events of our lives, the weather, and we would listen to the various birds singing their late afternoon songs. It was a peaceful and contented time. Grandma would spend an entire week canning vegetables for the coming year.

            The first time I remember seeing the old cottonwood tree was in the summer of 1966. I spent three separate weeks at the farm with my grandparents that summer and during the day I would explore until I was caked in dirt and happy as a hound dog running through the trees. The old cottonwood was in a section of thick woods along one of those creeks on the last 100 acres. That creek is about 2 football fields to the west of where I am now sitting as I write this. What drew my attention to the thicket was several huge vines that hung down from several trees. They reminded me of something you would see in an old Tarzan movie. It was fairly dry that August and there were parts of the creek bed that were dry and easily crossed. I got to that creek bed and there it was. A huge old cottonwood. The trunk was gnarly, and large roots dug into the soil around the creek searching for water. I was amazed at the size of that tree.

            When I got back to the farmhouse, I asked Grandpa about that tree. He knew immediately which tree I was talking about. I asked him how old it might be. He said it was at least 100 years old and probably a good deal more. He remembered it being big when he was little! He and some friends whose family lived on that land at the time had played in that same strip of woods. The next day when we all went over to the garden, Grandpa and I walked over and looked at the tree together. He stood there looking at it for a few minutes and I could tell he was thinking back to when he was my age, some 55 years before around 1910.

            The winding road of life keeps going. The year was 1994. It was the last week of April and I took my son, who was turning 10 years old that week, to the farm and we spent a weekend together. Just father and son. On one of those days we walked the entire 360 acres of the farm. We got to that section of trees and it was evening thicker than before. I showed him the old cottonwood and told him about when I had first seen it nearly 30 years before. We crawled under the barbed fence and headed back to the farmhouse. I sure wish I had that kind of energy today!

            The road continues to wind and curve. The year was 2006 and I was spending a weekend at the farm and had brought along a friend. We used an ATV to get around this time! I showed my friend the old cottonwood, took some pictures of the vines and thicket, and we went on our way. Three years later I moved to my new house that is on part of that 100 acres. I put a gate near the area where the creek was most shallow so that I could drive through in my UTV. Every time I would drive through there I would stop and gaze at that old cottonwood. It was like a dear old friend. The week that I moved into the house, the first week of May 2009, I walked down to that tree and measured it. It was 19 feet in diameter! I did some research and learned that it was most likely about 250 years old. Boy, that got me to thinking. American Indians had likely walked by that old cottonwood. It probably sprouted up around the time of the French and Indian war in the 1750’s. What a great sentinel I had to watch over my little piece of heaven.

            Over the next five years I did several improvements to the property. I had a 3-foot diameter culvert brought in with a rock base around it about 30 feet from that old cottonwood. I had a berm built up to keep the pass through from washing out so that I could easily drive my truck from the 6 acres where my house is and the other 39 acres that I have inherited since my mother passed away. Each time I drove through there I couldn’t help but look at the old tree.

            One morning in early 2015 I came out on my front porch to admire the sunrising over the large pine trees to the east of my house. As I stood there looking out at the hay meadow and the trees surrounding it, I looked over to the west and there was something different. I couldn’t quite place it at first and then it hit me. The old cottonwood was gone! Well, not really gone. Sometime during the night, it just fell over. I got in my UTV and drove down to look. There it was laying over on it’s side pointing to the Southeast. The huge ball of roots were sticking out everywhere. It had simply fallen over. I guess it may sound silly, but I got tears in my eyes. I had been looking at that tree for over 50 years. I thought about the history of it and I was sad. It was much too big for me to try to cut up. It would just have to return to the Earth from where it sprouted so many years before. For another two years there were still green leaves on the old cottonwood. But finally, about a year ago it started to decompose. In fact, a lot of brush and smaller trees have sprung up around it and you can’t hardly see it without getting almost on top of it now.

            Every time I drive through the pass I think about that tree and the shared past we had. I haven’t had a chance yet, but soon when my granddaughters visit again, I will take them down and show them what remains of that old tree and I’ll tell them the history behind it. Perhaps when they are old, they’ll remember seeing it and they’ll know the history of it. By the time they are about 50 years old it will have been 300 years since that tree first sprouted and was about the size of a twig. Half of that time the tree will have been a part of our family’s life. Well, that’s the story of the “Old Cottonwood”. I hope you enjoyed it.

            PS: The attached picture shows the old cottonwood about 7 years ago. The picture doesn’t do it service though. You can’t see the trunk down at ground level and get a true idea of how big it really was, but this is the only picture that I have that shows it in full height. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my computer photo files I believe there is a photo that I took of it around 2006 from fairly close-up showing it at ground level. If I ever find that photo, then I’ll add it to this post.

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