R.I.P., city's oldest 'resident'

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 9, 2010 - 1:35 PM

The 300-plus-year-old oak tree will live on through story and sculpture.

This bur oak, located off Franklin Terrace near West River Parkway, is thought to be at least 300 years old. It is scheduled for removal, but first there will be a celebration at 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

Photo: Tom Sweeney, Star Tribune

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For more than 300 years, the grand bur oak has stood as a regal sentry, overlooking the Mississippi River from its perch high atop the bank that now anchors the western lip of the Franklin Avenue bridge.

Believed to be the oldest living tree in Minneapolis, it failed to leaf this spring and has been marked for removal.

Its passing will not go unheralded. A community gathering, Honoring the Ancient Oak, is planned for 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the base of the tree, which stands in a wedge of city parkland just north of the intersection of E. Franklin Avenue and Franklin Terrace. A ceremony will honor the tree through poetry, music and story.

It's not the first time the tree has stirred passions. In 1945, Theodore Wirth, godfather of the city's parks, waxed poetic about it in his book "Minneapolis Park System," saying, "Symmetrically beautiful, this 'first citizen' of Minneapolis, surviving the storms, drought and fires that during the years have scourged the area of others of its kind, still remains a picture of physical strength and majestic beauty."

Wirth thought the tree might be as much as 700 years old. Modern botany techniques put the age at closer to 333 years, still impressive by any standard. That means it sprouted in 1677. George Washington would not be born for another 55 years.

Time has taken its toll. Wirth estimated the height at 58 feet and the canopy spread at 66 feet. Through the trimming of dead branches, those numbers have dropped to 44 and 37 feet, respectively. The south side of the tree died off first; as a result, half of the trunk is now hollow.

The tree will live on in a different way. The park board is getting ideas from a sculptor, said Ralph Sievert, director of forestry for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

"Nothing can be done with the trunk because it's hollow," he said. "But there are a couple of good branches, and we're exploring what can be done with them."

In addition, after the tree has been removed a sapling will be planted in its place, so that in perhaps another 300 years, people can hold another Honoring the Ancient Oak ceremony.

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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