Simply due to age, stature and its location near the original center of Independence, Jeffrey Eastham and Randall Pratt figured, the towering walnut tree that had been behind the Overfelt-Johnston House at the corner of Walnut Avenue and Pleasant Streets could tell quite a trove of stories as a witness to history.
Turns out, the tree had been holding a story for more than 150 years.
Jeffrey Eastham of Jeff's Tree Service had cut down the tree a couple months ago – a necessary step due to wood rot in the core and damage from carpenter ants. When he had the trunk split for wood earlier this month, a small metal ball 2 inches in diameter fell out.
“It was pretty easy to figure out,” Eastham said, that it was a Civil War cannonball. “It was embedded in the wood.”
He contacted the property owner, local attorney and history buff Randall Pratt.
Pratt said his initial reaction was both surprise and wonder – “How did it get there?”
A couple weeks later, he sounds still a bit in awe over the find.
“It's not delight,” he said. “It's this feeling of being deeply connected to an event that I didn't expect, of something that happened 150 years ago, and you find it in a walnut tree.”
Pratt, who is hoping to stabilize and refurbish the old house, estimated the tree was at least 200 years old, possibly even older than the United States, as it had to have been a mature tree to take on even a small cannonball, not show signs of it, and continue to grow around it.
Eastham thought it could even be older than 300 years.
“It's a shame it had to come down, but there's other houses nearby and it could've caused damage,” he said. “If it could tell a story … it's from way back.”
There's little doubt about the origins of the cannonball, which weighs between 2 and 3 pounds. The First of Battle of Independence took place in August 1862, in part in the fields across the street from the house, which had been built several years prior.
In that short battle, Confederate forces had caught the Union garrison in town by surprise, and as the portion of the garrison camped in the fields scrambled to defend, they fired volleys with their field artillery cannons, which Pratt said were suited for mobility.
Among the stories of the house is that it served as a makeshift hospital during the battle, with doors removed to be stretchers.
The cannonball is not the first one found on the property. Pratt said the previous owners had been fixing it up in the early 1980s, hoping to make it a non-residential office (those plans never came to fruition).
“In that restoration, they replaced brick that had deteriorated, and they found (a cannonball) there,” Pratt said.
That artifact now resides with the Jackson County Historical Society.
While one ball lodged in the house, another found a spot in the tree where large branches start to fan out, and certainly not visible as the tree continued to grow around it.
“Kind of in a crotch,” as Eastham described it.
This new find, Pratt plans to keep – “There's no evidence of any charge in it,” he said – and possibly display in a refurbished Overfelt-Johnston House. That project, if finished, will take some time, Pratt acknowledges, as the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has some notable structural issues in the foundation.
“It's leaning in multiple dimensions,” he said. “It's difficult to determine how to stabilize it.”
The felled tree, which Eastham estimated was about 4 feet circumference, also had some handcrafted chains among the branches. Eastham wondered if there had been a sinister use for those, but Pratt said it's apparent the chains were used to hold some lower, heavy branches that grew a ways out from the trunk.
Like Eastham, Pratt lamented a bit that the tree had to come down, but he said a severe storm that rolled through in the following weeks might have done that anyway, and perhaps that might have caused some damage or not revealed its story, which has now made its way across the country and beyond.
“This tree has seen it all,” he said, adding that holding the cannonball is a sobering, tangible experience.
“The cannonball itself is small, but the message it brings with it 157 years later is huge,” he said. Pratt said. “We find peace if we are united, or face death if we are divided.”