When the tree first sprouted from an acorn, war was raging between the United States and Great Britain, Napoleon was retreating from Russia and the land on which it grew to a sapling still belonged to the Ojibwe.
By the time Mark Twain was piloting riverboats on the nearby Mississippi River in 1857, more than 40 years later, it stood tall and mature on what had become the Minnesota Territory, and it was part of the lush forested Washington County shoreline he would scan from the pilothouse.
The mighty bur oak standing along Diane and Ted Fredrickson’s driveway in the River Acres neighborhood on the south edge of Cottage Grove, tall as a six-story building and with a trunk about 13 feet around supporting a majestic canopy shading much of their yard, has been witness to an estimated 200 years of history — two centuries of ever-cycling seasons, of floods, droughts, blizzards and windstorms.
“I just wish it could talk,” Diane Fredrickson said.
This turbulent summer so far has brought heavy rains and devastating winds that have taken a sobering toll on trees across the Twin Cities, and cities in Washington County have not been spared. Their losses serve as a reminder that the value of trees, both to homeowners and cities at large, go beyond the aesthetic.
“I think trees kind of define a community, in some aspects,” said Steve Bowe, Cottage Grove’s city forester. “The way we preserve them, the way we take care of them: I look at them not only as a value to the city, but to the taxpayers. I look at them as a value to everybody.”
To highlight what value they bring to a community named, after all, for a wooded area, Cottage Grove last year initiated a “Champion Tree” registry last year.
The Fredricksons’ bur oak is believed to be the oldest tree in the city, and they treasure it.
“It’s just a beautiful, stable, living thing that we get to live around,” said Diane Fredrickson, who also is a master gardener. The couple has lived on the property for 33 years, and the big old oak is like part of the family.
“We have hundreds of pictures of people trying to reach around it,” said Ted Frederickson, adding it’s faced its share of fender-benders. “It’s been nicked a few times, but it’s a survivor.”
The land on which their home sits is believed to be part of an oak savanna — a lightly forested grassland dominated by the oaks — that made up the landscape around Cottage Grove, which was developed into farmland by the first European settlers in the area. At one time, the River Acres area was a farm, including their property.
Along with the oldest tree, Bowe selected trees with other outstanding characteristics as well. The program might be expanded and updated in time, but for now, here are the city’s top trees:
Tallest: At 86 feet, a cottonwood tree near All Smiles Dentistry at 7501 80th St. is believed to be the city’s tallest. Trees endure all kinds of adversity to reach their maximum height, Bowe noted. During its approximate 50-year life, the tree has withstood storms, commercial and housing construction, and utility line work.
Girth: Some trees grow tall, some trees grow wide, and some do both. The champion in the girth category belongs to another cottonwood located at 7548 Irvine Av. and overhangs Pine Tree Valley Park. This tree measures 12 feet, 10 inches in girth, making it a champion tree that is hard to hug.
Historical significance: A fairly simple white pine at 8203 Innsdale Av. has deep roots in Minnesota history. The tree arrived in Cottage Grove as a 1-inch seedling from the offspring of white pines that survived the 1918 Cloquet Fire, which was the worst natural disaster in state history in terms of the number of the lives lost in a single day. The fire, caused by sparks on the local railroads and dry conditions, killed 453 people, and injured or displaced more than 50,000 in the region south of Duluth.