They Cut Down The Great White Oak Of Mingo
September 25, 1938
They Cut Down The Great White Oak Of Mingo County
Editor's Note: Friday morning, September 23, the Great White Oak of Mingo county was felled. It was quite dead. Last summer it supported only a few leaves on one or two branches; this summer it failed to leaf at all. It stood about one mile from the Mingo-Logan line, four and one- half miles from Holden on the Logan-Williamson road on property owned by the Island Creek Coal company. The story that follows is the story of the cutting.
EVERYBODY was whistling: "So They Cut Down The Old Pine Tree." With some allowances under the rules of poetic license, it meant that the Mingo White Oak, oldest and largest forest- type white oak in America and probably in the world, was going to be chopped, sawed, hacked, wedged and other decapitated.
It promised to be one of the most impressive forest executions of record. State Forester D. B. Griffin had a squad of rangers and game protectors on the job as well as a crew from the nearby CCC camp; Conservation Commission officers were there in uniform as well as Mingo county deputies, while miscellaneous minions of the law policed the highway and watched the crowd with considerable diligence when they could keep their eyes off the tree.
E. P. Rice of Huntington and John Foster of Holden represented the Island Creek Coal company, on whose property the great tree stood.
Some years ago the company gave the state an acre of ground surrounding the Great Oak as a park, and the state erected picnic tables and rustic seats on the steep slope south of the tree.
That was when the Oak was sound and healthy, when it stood majestically on a little shelf between two ravines and looked out across a trickle of water that is called Trace Fork of Pigeon Creek, and the paved highway alongside and out toward the mountains that rise to the north and south and east and west in delightful confusion. One hundred and forty-six feet above the ground it waved its tallest plumes. In a region which was stripped of its primeval timber years ago and today has only second-growth stuff that is not making much headway against the fumes from gob-pile fires a few miles away, the great White Oak looked every inch the patriarch - the granddaddy of all the Oaks.
But that was yesterday, and today the Oak was a giant corpse. One had only to look at the leafless branches and squint a little to imagine that the soul of the magnificent tree had taken flight, leaving a sagging frame behind that had been standing so long - some said nearly 600 years, others insisted a thousand would be nearer - that it couldn't bend its stiffened old joints to lie down in decent repose.
But now the obsequies were to be performed with a vengeance. From Holden and Logan, from Williamson and Huntington and Charleston and Welch, from the mines down the road and from the cabins in the hills came throngs to witness the cutting and to gather a chip or a napped branch as a souvenir.
Expert crews were to do the work. Paul (Bunyan) Cris, a giant of a fellow who has lumbered from one coast to the other, headed a squad of axemen and sawyers from the Kelly Axe company, and Ed Meek, another brawny veteran of the forests, had his men there from the E. C. Atkins Saw company. Matter of fact, without the help of the Atkins company the tree could not have been handled with any delicacy, because the common six-foot cross-cut saw was about as useless as a toy pistol when placed against the trunk of the Oak. (At the ground, the bole measured 30 feet and 9 inches in circumference. Three feet above the ground, where the saw was to go through, the diameter was better than six feet.)
So they had a nine-foot saw ready for the operation, and by 9 o'clock several hundred people had gathered to witness the spectacle. Some axe work had been done the previous afternoon, on the north side of the tree. This was to chart the course which the tree would take in falling and to determine how long the sawing job would require.
As was generally believed, the old Oak was rotten at the core. A foot or two from the bark the axes broke through into the open, and after trimming up the cut, work was halted until morning.
Spectators, waiting for 10 o'clock to arrive, speculated on the actual age of the Oak - which could not be calculated accurately until the annulations were exposed by the saw - and on the direction it would take when it fell. Paul Cris had decided to throw it down hill, along the shelf which narrows out between the ravines and finally drops off into Trace Fork. The shelf didn't appear to be long enough to take the whole of the monster, but opinion was agreed that the top was dead anyway and that it would snap off at the time of impact regardless of how the tree was thrown.
"I can put her anywhere you want her gentleman," said Cris. "Lay a ten-dollar bill anywhere you like and I'll guarantee the trunk will cover it."
Then he sat in the cut, spread his great arms wide until they touched the deepest recess, brought them dramatically to- [sic] together in front of eyes and sighted out along as though preparing to dive. "That's where she'll fall, boys," he said with calm assurance. "That's a test that never fails." His hands pointed out straight along the shelf and nobody rose to argue.
Cris had promised to shave Ed Meek with his axe as an added attraction before the crews set to work, so they held a pail of water over a smoldering fire and Cris carefully took the rubber bands off the box that enclosed the head of his favorite axe. The axe had not left his hands since the crowd began to arrive.
"They'll dull her," he explained confidentially. "Even if they looked at her they'd dull her. . . . Never let anybody touch her if I can help it."
Then he lathered Ed Meek's whiskers with a professional flourish, tucked a towel around his chin and set to work. The axe flicked through the whiskers without difficulty, but when he reached the chin a line of thin red showed up.
"That's the trouble with having a lot of officials around," Cris lamented. "I've shaved a thousand men with that axe and that's the first time I ever drew blood. These officials get me a little nervous." Cameras were clicking all around. There were two regulation motion-picture cameras on the job and any number of amateur outfits. Ed Meek sat serenely on the log and said nothing. For some reason nobody wise-cracked about William Tell. The shave was completed without further damage.
Then came the big moment. The Long Tom saw was laid against the trunk, six men handling it until it entered the wood, the ground was cleared all around and Ed Rice made a stump talk to the great crowd, which now numbered more than two thousand, telling them that the tree might splinter and that they would have to keep well back or take the consequences.
Most of the watchers went up the hill to the south, with some crossing the ravine and staring through a gap in the small timber that had been hacked out by CCC boys.
The saw moved back and forth, eating quickly through the tough old wood that had been storing up for centuries there on the banks of Trace Fork in the rugged mountains of Mingo county.
The sawyers shouted and sang as they worked. Axemen trimmed wooden wedges and drove them into the widening crack when the steel wedges played out. Cameras ground and clicked all around and police endeavored to keep a lane open so that the cameramen could operate.
Every moment came a warning shout from the camera fiends, until finally one wag at the back sang out: "Hey, get the cameras out of the way so we can see the tree."
It seemed only a scant quarter-hour from the time the saw entered the trunk until Paul Cris called: "We're through boys," though my watch showed about 30 minutes. They stripped one handle off the Long Tom and drew it carefully from the cut and then the wedgemen really went to work. Wider and wider grew the crack and the limbs of the forest giant quivered in the bright sun that had driven out an early-morning fog. Suddenly there was a crackling as of mammoth bones snapping, the upper limbs of the Oak dipped, one of the axemen, in a gesture of defiance, threw his puny strength against the Oak above the saw cut, shouts of "Timber" and "There she goes" were sent up and the tree that was an acorn 34 years before Columbus discovered America went to its doom.
It went with magnificent dignity, as befitted a true monarch, and when it crashed the mountains rolled back the sound to the open-mouthed watchers on the hillside. Louder noises may and probably have been heard there, but never one that was more perfectly in accord with the forces that gave it birth - the great White Oak and the hard-packed soil of Mingo county. It echoed back and forth for a living moment and it satisfied the thousands of spectators who promptly rushed forward from their positions of safety to peer at the fallen monarch and grope around in the heart- rotted center of the immense stump.
It was mid-afternoon before the foresters could get out their tape-measures, their calipers and their cross-cut saws and really get to work. Even then dozens of idlers remained on the ground, reluctant to leave.
State Forester Griffin and Emmet Keadle of Williamson (whose almost paternal affection for the Oak is one of the traditions of the county) went to work counting the increment rings and ended up with a puzzle.
Most trees grow rapidly in their youth and slow down sharply as they grow older. This results in smaller annulations as the rings are added. But the Mingo Oak - as anyone might have known - was no ordinary tree, and even in death it refused to be conventional. Its heart rings were exceptionally small - as nearly, that is to say, as they could be counted in the rot that lay at the heart. On a cross section 21 feet from the ground, Keadle and Griffin counted 384 rings, but the last inch and a quarter had to be estimated because it just wasn't there.
They decided to add 36 years for the heart count, then had to guess how long it took the Oak to reach a height of 21 feet. One man's guess is as good as another's, Griffin said, so they agreed on 50 years and docketed the tree permanently in the records as 470 years - which means that the acorn sprouted in 1468.
Griffin explained the unusually small annulations near the core with the theory that a heavy timber growth must have covered the area around the sapling, back before Columbus sailed to find a passage to the Indies. The Oak was feeble and stunted for nearly a century. Greater trees shielded it from the sun, took much of the nourishment from the ground around it.
Then it took a hitch in its belt and began to go to town. For 15 or 20 years it shot up like a bad weed, then - satisfied that it could go on living at a more leisurely rate, now that it had its head in the air - it sank back into normalcy and put on its rings like a gentleman.
If the trunk had not bee rotten at the heart, a 90-foot log could have been taken out that would have been better than six feet across at one end and two feet, six inches at the other.
Rot made the first 24 feet practically worthless, but in spite of that fact a sound log of about 66 feet will be salvaged. This includes part of one limb above the first forks. A sound log 40 feet in length and averaging 54 inches in diameter is the alternative cutting.
The Island Creek company made extensive investigation of the possibility of preserving sections of the tree. Inquiries have come from the Smithsonian Institution and other museums and quarter sections as well as full sections are in great demand.
Yesterday it was decided that the huge log will be taken to the Rainelle plant of the Meadow River Lumber company, which operates the largest cut-off saw in the eastern United States. Some cross-sections will be made, other parts of the log will be used for quartering. Tabletops, lumber and novelties will emerge from the carcass of the fallen monarch which ruled a mountain realm for more than four centuries.
So, even in death, the great Mingo Oak will go on serving the needs and pleasures of men, and many generations yet to come will gaze upon its dissected skeleton. Perhaps Joyce Kilmer didn't miss the truth so far after all, when he wrote that "only God can make a tree."
Parks and Recreation