The Post Office Oak Tree may be our biggest hoax ever pulled off in the Grove. If that don’t grab you nothing will. I have done considerable research on the Post Office Oak Tree and have not been able to confirm the story that has circulated about it. When I am trying to establish the authenticity of a story I try to find the earliest source. Where did it originate? How long has it been around?
The earliest reference I can find concerning the old tree is in Lalla Brigham’s The Story of Council Grove printed in 1921. Speaking of the old stone brewery built by Francis Hebrank, now the Post Office Oak Museum, she writes, “In front of this building is an old oak tree which belonged to the oak grove in which the treaty was signed in 1825. In early days it was called the Post Office Oak, as there was a cache made of stone placed by this tree in which passing caravan left letters or messages.”
Here’s what we do know about the postal service here. According to early Morris County historian John Maloy (who never mentions the Post Oak), the people of Council Grove had been getting their mail at the mail station until 1855. This station was located where the Farmers and Drovers Bank now stands. It was contracted to Waldo, Hall & Co. in 1850 and continued up to February 26th, 1855, when the Council Grove post office was established. G.M. Simcock was appointed as the first postmaster. Simcock however, refused this position because he had not asked for it, did not want it and it was given without his consent. So the commission went to T. S. Huffaker the Kaw teacher and interpreter.
Maloy goes on to say there was, “no fixed place called a postoffice, but when a mail arrived he (the post master) would go to the mail station and get the mail sack and take it, followed by the crowd to some house or store where it would be poured out on the floor and distributed.” Maloy also notes that every place of business had stamps to sell to the public. This is our earliest history concerning the post in Council Grove.
Let us consider the practicality of a stone cache at the base of the tree. First of all I have never found any historical account of mail being left unattended in such a manner. Well, there is one, but that was in Mark Twain’s Roughing It. The stage broke down because it was overloaded with back mail, so they left half the bags of mail for the cavalry to pick up.
If there were a dwelling or establishment, that is where the mail would be dropped and the home or business owner would serve as ‘postmaster’. A great proof of this is from the Kansas State Historical Society’s publication ‘Kansas Post Offices’. In 1869 in Dickinson County, a post office was operated out of a corner cupboard in the small log cabin of Alexis Blanchett. This was not an exceptional instance but rather a common occurrence.
Knowing that Seth Hays was here in 1847 it is safe to assume he took care of what little mail passed through here. Also knowing that the Neosho River came out of its banks regularly, it is ridiculous to think that intelligent persons would leave their mail at the base of a tree about 600 feet from the river. Evidence of this purported ‘stone cache’ has not been found to my knowledge. The absence of this stone cache has led to the modern version of the story, namely, that the mail was left in a knot hole in the tree or a hollow branch. I will attest that when the tree was alive I do recall a hollow branch and I was led to believe that was where the mail was stuck. Of course, as a child I never thought to question if the pioneers had to stand on horseback to get the mail, as the hole was pretty high off the ground.
What about the traders using the Post Oak to warn others of hostile Indians and swollen streams? Again, I have never found mention of leaving messages in the Post Oak or any tree. Wagon trains would meet each other coming and going on the road, at these places of meeting is when the most accurate news could be exchanged. It doesn’t make sense to wait until reaching Council Grove to find out what’s going on, or learning of conditions at Council Grove, find them changed by the time you reach the reported area.
January 25th of 1955 an entry from Samuel Wood’s diary was printed in the Council Grove Republican as part of the centennial celebration. The entries were supposedly made from September 15th, 1854 to November 26th of the same. It includes Sam’s trip through Council Grove where he mentions dropping off a letter in the Post Oak. If this diary were authentic, we might have a tinker’s chance at establishing the Post Oak as bona fide. However, there are many inaccuracies in this diary that prove it’s a fake.
I talked with David Apelin of Dwight about this diary. Aspelin is a descendant of Sam Wood’s brother. In researching his ancestor, Aspelin was able to point out the anachronisms in the diary. The biggest proof in point is that at the time the diary was purportedly written, 1854, Wood was not traveling the Santa Fe Road but was occupied in Lawrence. He attended a reception for Governor Reeder on October 19th, 1854 and by the 29th of November had cast his vote for territorial delegate for congress. It wasn’t until about ten years afterward Sam made his crossing on the Santa Fe.
Aspelin said that his grandmother wrote this story for the Council Grove Republican. She received her information from a Westport Newspaper and from the archives of the Chase County Historical Society. She pieced the story together from events which may have had some truth to them. Don McNeal edited this article before it went to print. He found something that stuck out like a sore thumb. The Westport version of the story included the Last Chance Store. The Last Chance was not built until three years after the diary was written. So, McNeal left this line out of the Council Grove version.
There have been doubts about the Post Oak for a number of years. Mary Metzger who lived in the stone house near the tree expressed her disappointment when the “decision was made to recognize the oak tree on the Crum property as the Council Oak Tree and they called the oak tree on her property the Post Office Oak. She deeply felt the decision was the wrong one.” Apparently Metzger had reason to believe that her tree was the Council Oak. I won’t go there.
Now let us look at some numbers. I went around to various remaining trees from the old oak grove and compared ages as estimated by KSU forestry. I did my own measuring and estimations and found they were within ten years one way or the other of KSU’s figures. The age and sprout date of the Council Oak is unknown and appears so on the 1985 Nation Register of Historic Places Inventory. My figure, based on the diameter multiplied by growth factor 5, puts the tree at 210 years old when a wind storm took it in 1958. That puts the sprout date at about 1748. The Post Oak was estimated to be 270 years old when it died in 1999, making the sprout date 1729. My calculations show the tree to be 222 years old making the sprout date 1777. That’s pretty old, but not older than the stump at the east end of Rays Apple Market. Its sprout date is 1694, that makes it about 35 years (83 by my figures) older than the Post Oak. If a tree were used to stick letters in, would the Post Oak have been the more prominent? I think not.
Granted, these numbers are not conclusive. Based on the growth factor used, the age of the tree could vary by 180 years. Recent studies have shown that some trees that were thought to be about 300 years old were actually 500! Studies have also shown that Burr Oaks have a faster growth rate in Kansas. So our trees could appear older than they are.