By Matt Reese
Farmers and trees have a contentious relationship. While livestock on pasture can benefit from their summer shade, there are few other practical benefits of trees on farm ground. They persistently plague fence rows, rob yields from surrounding crops and serve as highly inconvenient obstacles for farm equipment of every kind.
With this reality in mind, I always marvel when I see a lone tree standing out in the middle of a farm field. Why is it there? Each one has a different story, I’m sure. In every case, though, a striking tree standing out in the middle of a farm field is a combination of God’s magnificent handiwork and the intentionality of generations of landowners to preserve it.
Certainly among the more visible and spectacular specimens of farm field trees in Ohio was recently felled. The imposing swamp white oak tree was known by its owners as the Sentinel Oak and, by virtue of its impressive dimensions and location, was also well known by the local community in Hancock County, near Findlay.
“My parents bought the farm in 1965. That is about the time Interstate-75 was going through between Findlay and Lima. I-75 goes through about a stone’s throw from where this tree stands. We had to cut it down because it had stopped leafing out and was dying,” said Mark Meyer who owns the farm. “It wasn’t anonymously tucked back into a woods. It was out in the middle of this field and a lot of people saw it and have a lot of interest in it. It has kind of a fan base.”
The base of the tree was 9 feet in diameter with a 30-foot circumference. It was 68 feet tall with a spread of 117 feet. Also making the tree unique was how low the bottom branches were on the trunk.
“The first branch was 8.5 feet up off the ground,” Mark said. “Normal trees in a woods would not have branches that low. At some point the trees around it were cut down. The tree was around 300 years old and the farm was not settled until 1851. It would have been 120 to 130 years old when it was sold for agricultural purposes. At that age, if it would have had trees around it, it would have a much taller trunk before it branched out. The story that was passed down to us from the previous owner was that the Native Americans took the trees down around it and used it in some sense for hunting, whether they hung meat up on the branches to dry and cure or they lured the game in to kill. It seems that its history origins go all the way back to the Ottawa or the Shawnee, whoever was in the area at the time.”
Since the time of agricultural development for the land, the tree has been admired — or at least begrudgingly tolerated — by the farmers who owned it.
“In earlier days, there was a lane that went by the tree east to west. It could have been a place where dairy cattle were driven and it could have been pretty inviting on hot August days for them to get shade. As we have gotten away from livestock, trees are a little bit more of a nuisance,” Mark said. “When we bought the farm, we were given a reverential awe of the tree from the previous owners who told us stories about it. We just didn’t think it was right to take it down at that point, and I don’t know that we would have known how to take it down. It was a pretty big obstacle, though, out in the middle of our field. When I was younger and farming, I bent a few mufflers trying to get as close to the base of the tree as I could to plant corn. While we are sorry to see it go from a historical aspect, and we don’t farm it anymore, the farmer I am sure will be kind of glad it is not there.”
As the time to harvest the massive tree approached, the Meyers created a Facebook page and website for the famous tree to answer questions, learn stories and potentially market some of the lumber of the Sentinel Oak. They heard from a county commissioner, who was so taken by the beauty of the tree that he photographed it once a month throughout 2005, capturing it in every season. They have heard stories of how the tree served as a familiar landmark for family trips up and down I-75. When the kids saw the tree, they knew they were almost home.
A family friend shared with the Meyers that years earlier she had been going through a time of depression in her life. She was sorting through her thoughts while driving when the Sentinel Oak caught her eye.
“She saw the tree and thought, ‘If God can take an acorn, something that small, and make this mighty tree, then He can do something in my life too.’ She held onto to that, seeing what God could do with that tree,” said Therese Meyer, Mark’s wife. “A few years later we actually got to know that couple and they didn’t know we owned that field. It was a trigger for her that showed her God can do some pretty amazing things.”
On Friday, Feb. 19, custom logger John Mast from Fredericksburg showed up with ropes, pullies and a chainsaw with an impressive 52-inch bar. After a half day of work, Mast dropped the ancient giant. It was by far the biggest tree he’d ever cut. The center of the tree was hollowed out to about 15 feet off the ground, where solid slabs of the trunk are still 5 or 6 feet in diameter.
“It was a hard day but not necessarily a bad day. This tree had lived for a long time. Now we are going to turn it into live edge oak slabs,” Mark said. “It is sad to see it go but we don’t want it to go to waste either. A lot of people knew the tree. We never felt like we owned it. We were just caretakers.”
For more on the Sentinel Oak, visit @TheSentinelOak on Facebook or TheSentinelOak.com.