Death of a Namesake

I published this story some time ago under the tab Anecdota, but am going to publish it here, on my main page, because I’m afraid it is easily overlooked on the other and this is an important story to me. I’m not a tree hugger, per se, but I do have a great appreciation of nature and respect for historic landmarks. Council Grove, the people, long ago grasped the sense they were a significant place. An important place, not only to Kansas but nationally. In many instances Council Grove has made a fair, even laudable, effort at preserving and sharing their heritage. Unfortunately, they have also lost a great deal through carelessness or even thoughtlessness. The former is forgivable, for one may, while intending to do good, act without appropriate care; but the latter is simply shameful, for it requires not only the lack of care but also implies the deliberate and callous rejection of consideration; being ill-considerate, ill-advised. Not just inadequately so, but wrongly so.

Five years ago, when I was working on the book for Morris County, my wife and I were looking through the many photos scanned, and too often when she asked about this building or that building I would comment ‘oh, it was torn down a long time ago.’ Finally, she said I could write a book about buildings that use to be in Council Grove. And she’s right, I easily could. And it would not be a short book either. I understand that not every structure can be saved, but it seems far too many were torn down, not because they were dilapidated or dangerous, but because we wanted something bigger, newer, and tragically more modern.  I wish that everyone in Council Grove knew the following story.  It is an important lesson. A lesson that I hope could prevent our allowing such a thing to happen again. It is up to Council Grove to protect what they have, it always has been. No one else can be counted on to take care of it for them.

Death of a Namesake

            Sometime in October of 2012, I attended a city council meeting for one thing and learned another instead.  The city had decided to take bids to have two of the ancient oak trees at the park by the swimming pool cut down. To my recollection, this item was not on the agenda which appeared in the paper, hence my surprise when it was brought up.

Councilman Mark Brooks had someone come inspect the trees, and the conclusion was that both trees showed signs of decay and would have to be removed.  At that meeting, the decision was made to seek bids on having the removal done, and tentatively plan for having them removed by October 30th as I recall.

When this was made known to me I called Councilwoman Debi Schwerdtfegger and made a request on behalf of the Morris County Historical Society that if the tree (which stood at the northwest corner of the old pool) must be cut down, that the persons doing so save a section of the main trunk for us to study and preserve.  The city did so; to their own incrimination.  That section of trunk is in possession of the Morris County Historical Society, and I assure you it shows no sign of decay.  The tree was not hollow, it was not discolored, and most likely would have stood for another 200 years.

The tree which stood in the little circle drive by the old pool, I will admit showed signs of decay, so I never had any complaint about it being removed.  But the other tree was purely a victim of progress.  The only reason it was removed is because it stood where the new water slides were going to be.

Several individuals that I spoke with on the matter were aware that the city was going to remove trees, but had no idea it was the 200-year-old oaks for which our town got its name.  They assumed it was probably some locust or other smaller, insignificant trees that were to be removed.  If I had, at the time, made this information known to the public, we may have saved that tree.  I assure you I considered it carefully.  As it was, the city already had an attorney on retainer (or so I was informed) because I had caused them quite a bit of heat during the swimming pool bond issue; that story I might share later.

In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania they have what are known as ‘witness trees’.  What a fitting name. These are massive old trees, sycamore, that stood 155 years ago to witness the clashing of two great armies.  When people pass by these trees, they stop and put their hand upon the trunk.  It’s kind of like shaking the hand that shook the hand of some great man.  Council Grove has 15 or 16 of their own witness trees.  Gigantic burr oaks that have stood through 250 years of Kansas storms.  In the 1840s they witnessed the freighters of the Santa Fe trade encamped beneath their bows.  By the 1930s, tourists parked their model Ts in their shade and picnicked. Today, I enjoy walking among them in the quiet of the evening, contemplating these things.

Final thoughts; We lived across the street from the park where these great oaks stood. I remember clearly, that after the tree trimmers had cut away all the branches, we could plainly see the towering trunks of those trees from our home. It was something of a surreal sight. It was like seeing something you shouldn’t. Like when the wall of the building on Neosho Street fell out into the alley and all the rooms upstairs could be seen as though it were a little child’s dollhouse; it was still there, didn’t look like it always had, couldn’t undo what had happened.  It were as if someone should take the remains from the Unknown Indian Monument and lay them out for all the world to gawk at.  Just unnecessary and sickening.

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