A plaque on the mighty white oak tree in the backyard of John and Judy Schofield, 1618 N. Union St., once heralded the Independence icon as the “oldest white oak in Jackson County.”
But not anymore.
Today, the plaque is gone. And so is the mammoth tree, estimated to be around 275 years old. Its massive branches once shaded parts of four adjoining properties in the Truman Historic District.
With every living thing, death is inevitable, as it was for the tree – with a 6-foot diameter and 20-foot circumference. The diseased behemoth was tearfully laid to rest on Aug. 19.
“I just cried the day that tree went down, says Judy, who wiped away tears “off and on” as she watched the tree fall – branch by branch. “It was a sad day.”
Also sadly watching were neighbors Jim and Sharon Hannah, who lived south of the Schofields at 810 W. Waldo Ave. They, too were captivated by the magnificence of the oak, whose spreading branches covered a quarter of their property.
“I felt a personal connection with the tree. I considered the (oak) a boy and named him Old Oakie,” says Jim, who laughingly says, “Three-fourths of the reason I am here is because of the tree.”
For Sharon, it was an inspiration to be in the presence of Old Oakie every morning, she says, because he was “an incredible web of life. … So when we think about the persons whose lives have been lived out in the shadows and presence of this mighty oak tree, it is amazing.
“And as I would sit outside in the morning and watch the wildlife, the oak tree was the core of what was essentially a rodent highway all the way from the end of our block, as the squirrels would come from tree to tree, from branch to branch and literally step from one branch of a tree into the huge oak tree and then off it on the other side into the trees around this area.”
For the Schofields, Old Oakie brought back 17 years of memories.
“We ate around the tree. The grandchildren played around the tree. We enjoyed watching the animals up in the tree,” Judy says, recalling a friend once counted 29 squirrels in it.
“Being under the tree was like being in a natural habitat sort of a thing,” Judy adds, “because you could sit out there and watch them.”
Squirrels weren’t the only animals in the tree, estimated to be perhaps 75 to 80 feet tall. There were raccoons, too.
John Schofield grins telling about the time raccoons came down the tree in broad daylight, walked over to the peach tree in Jim Hannah’s backyard and had a feast.
“Jim never got any peaches, but the raccoons enjoyed them,” John laughingly says, adding: “We had peach pits all over the yard.”
Because Old Oakie meant so many things to so many people, the Hannahs and the Schofields thought a celebration of life was in order for the “pearl” of their neighborhood.
“We could have put wreaths on our door,” Jim says jokingly. “But I don’t believe people would have understood.”
So instead, three generations of the Schofield family, the Hannahs and other neighbors and friends gathered around the dead oak tree on the eve of its demise for a service of remembrance.
The observance included the reading of a passage from Gerald Jonas’ “North American Trees” that states “To know something about trees – about even one tree – is to know something important, something fundamental, something profound about the nature of the world and our place in it.”
And from Isaiah 55, the following Bible verse was read: “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
These same words were also sung in the joyous hymn, “You Shall Go Out With Joy,” which was sung several times because it was so upbeat, Jim says, noting, “Everyone took part in the readings and had a chance to eulogize the tree in between tears during the meditation.”
In addition, John Schofield read about an ancient South American Indian tradition – The Fellowship of the Tree – which is a time for peace and unity.
A watermelon feast followed the celebration.
Although the Schofields and Hannahs knew three years ago that Old Oakie had come to the end of its life and was slowly dying, they hoped against hope the mighty oak could be saved.
In an effort to save the tree that was losing large strips of bark, John put $500 worth of water around the tree last year during the drought. But to no avail.
“I did the best I could,” he says. “But water wasn’t what it needed.”
The arborists who examined the tree were of the opinion that weasels or some small insects had infested the tree. The infestation, they say, was discovered too late to prevent the tree from dying.
“The tree was rotted from the inside,” Jim says, recalling that when the 35-foot long stump was felled, “you could see all the way through it. It was completely hollow all the way up.”
Says Jim: “When the raccoon and squirrels lived in there, they were able to winter (inside the tree) because they could go down to the (bottom) in that tree.”
As for the table-high trunk that remains, the Schofields plan to fill it in with rock, put a top on it and turn it into a table. And that’s not all.
“We are eventually going to get benches so we can sit around it,” Judy says, explaining the grandchildren have always liked to eat in the backyard. “This is a postscript to the whole thing.”
Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.