For years after being designated Texas’s State Champion Coastal Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) in 1966, the tree affectionately known as The Big Tree reigned in leafy glory at Goose Island State Park near Rockport.
Dethroned in 2003 by the discovery of an even larger tree in Brazoria County — the San Bernard Oak on the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge — it still remains the second largest live oak in Texas, and one of the largest in the United States.
Thirty five feet in circumference and forty-four feet tall, the Big Tree is more than a thousand years old. It would have been only a sprout when Dirk III, Count of Holland, defeated Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor, at the Battle of Vlaardingen, when Buckfast Abbey was founded in England, or when Aeddan ap Blegywryd, King of Gwynedd, passed on.
More recently, the giant oak survived an 1864 Civil War battle that destroyed the nearby town of Lamar, but most recently it did battle with Hurricane Harvey: a battle that left it battered, somewhat broken and stripped of leaves, but firmly rooted to its ground.
After hearing that smaller trees surrounding the Big Tree had been uprooted or shattered during the hurricane, a local fishing guide said, “Well, that’s why we call some people thick-barked. They’ve got what it takes to survive a storm.” Given the track record of a certain thick-barked oak in my own town, I fully expect that The Big Tree will recover. A few of you know the story, but it’s worth the re-telling.
Between the years 2000 and 2010, the town I call home grew from 45,874 residents to 83,560. Since then, the rate of growth has increased, and shows no sign of slowing. Homes, schools, and churches are flooding into the surrounding countryside. New businesses are multiplying, and traffic has become a critical issue.
Some years ago, plans to convert heavily traveled Louisiana Avenue from an open ditch rural roadway to a concrete-curbed, storm-sewered thoroughfare were progressing nicely, until some observant citizens realized an obstacle stood in the way of all that progress. The obstacle? An uncommon and historically significant tree: the Ghirardi Compton Oak.
Compton oaks are wonderful trees, a cross between overcup and live oaks. Tolerant of poor drainage, overcups will grow in nearly any condition but standing water. Live oaks also are site tolerant, but prefer better drainage. While live oaks produce masses of tasty acorns, the overcup’s developed a bit of a reputation as the “acorn of last resort” for hungry animals.
The relatively rare Comptons combine the best traits of both parents. Faster growth, larger, tastier acorns, and heavy production are typical of the Compton, although individual trees may favor either the live or overcup side of the family.
Compton oaks also happen to be extraordinary beautiful, with large, overspreading canopies. That makes them a nice fit for League City, where beautiful trees abound. The city’s live oak legacy began in 1854 when three interrelated families — the Butlers, Cowards and Perkins — traveled overland from Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, to the coastal prairies of Galveston County. Settling somewhat west of League City on Chigger Creek (now Clear Creek), they established cattle ranches and followed Acadian tradition by planting oaks from the bags of acorns they carried from Louisiana in their wagons.
The trees thrived. When George Washington Butler moved his ranch headquarters to town in the 1870s, he brought with him a multitude of young oaks that had been started on Chigger Creek. After the community renamed itself League City in the first decade of the 1900’s, Butler asked J.C. League to ship in some flat cars of live oaks to continue transforming the prairie. When the shipment arrived, any homeowner who couldn’t afford the price of $4 per tree was given one to plant in his yard. Today, many of those Butler Oaks survive: century-old trees that have become the symbol for League City.
While the early tree-planting was taking place, agriculture also began to flourish. Truck farming of strawberries, corn, cucumbers, beets, figs, tomatoes and grapefruit became the specialty of a group of Italian families rooted in Cercenasco, Italy: a town in the province of Turin.
Over a thirty year period, these Italians entered America through Ellis Island, then sailed for Galveston. Unlike many Italian immigrants who remained on Galveston Island, the Vaglienti, Arolfo, Daro, Cucco, Morratto, Bocco and Ghirardi families moved inland, establishing a strong, cohesive community.
While still a young man, Clarence Ghirardi used to sort canteloupe under the disputed Compton oak, which shaded land owned by his uncle. Over the years, Clarence’s son Michael and grandsons Eric and Drayce played beneath its limbs. When the need for construction arose, the Ghirardi family preferred to see the tree remain in place: perhaps with the street curving around it. Once that option proved unworkable, Clarence offered to donate a half-acre of his own land in order to provide a new home for the tree.
The land bordered a park already in development, but the plan required moving the tree about 1500 feet: an expensive and complex operation which offered no guarantees, but which at least might avoid turning the tree into firewood.
As you might imagine, there were months of commotion. Vigils were held, arguments grew heated, and the usual complaints about frivolous use of tax dollars were voiced. (As it turned out, no tax dollars were spent, thanks in part to a $10,000 contribution by Trees for Houston which helped ensure the project’s success.)
Eventually, the tree had its own Facebook page, and people who’d never heard of the Ghirardi family or a Compton oak were stopping by for a look.
Barry Ward, Executive Director of Trees for Houston, advocated tirelessly for the tree. “If everybody pitches in and cooperates and thinks about what we can do, the likelihood is you will save one of the most significant Compton oaks in North America. The question now is: Does the city council have the will to go ahead and make it happen?”
In the end, they did have that will. A bid from Hess Landscape Construction of Orange County, California for $197,500 was accepted. It was money well spent. When Erik Hess and his crew showed up and went to work, they not only impressed the town with their competence, they inspired a community as well. And when they put their 1,300 horsepower and 400,000 pounds of equipment to the test, the old Ghirardi oak groaned, creaked and complained – but she moved.
Moving a tree of such size involved far more than a bucket and a shovel. There were dimensions to be taken, soils to be tested, trenches to be dug, and on-site boxes to be built. As the great oak took on the appearance of a Texas-sized bonsai, it became the center of the town’s attention.
The machinery that made the move possible was less impressive than the people who made it work. There’s something beautiful and inspiring about watching a tightly-knit and competent team accomplish a goal. Hess’s team was remarkably disciplined, and so attuned to one another that unexpected problems never rose to the level of crisis.
When one of the primary cables linking the excavators and bulldozers snapped just before the tree was moved into its new hole, the problem-solving process seemed to be more nerve-wracking for observers than for those actually solving the problem.
After the move had been completed, I talked for few minutes with Erik Hess. “I’ll bet you’re going to sleep well tonight,” I said. Laughing, he acknowledged some relief and suggested that the whole team would be sleeping better.
Pondering the stressful nature of the move, he said the Marine Corps had taught him a good bit about how to deal with it. “You get around it not by focusing on the stress, but by paying attention to the challenge in front of you,” he said.
Clearly, he’d learned the lesson well. Only after I uploaded my photos from the day did I notice one small, ambiguous gesture that might have suggested stress – the lightly clenched fists in the photo below.
Beyond that, there was only what a woman watching nearby called artistry: a beautifully choreographed pas de deux of knowledge and experience that ended with accolades and applause.
After the oak had been replanted, mulched, irrigated, and fed, there’s wasn’t much action down at the park. Experts kept an eye on the tree, but watching a root system reestablish itself isn’t the most exciting thing in the world.
People did drive down Louisiana Avenue to look at the tree from the road, or parked and walked across the pasture to take a photo. “Wasn’t that wonderful?” they’d say to one another. “I’d love to see them move that tree again.”
Thanks to the same people who committed to saving a piece of their town’s legacy, they can see it again. And you can watch, too – just to see how wonderful it truly was.
Today, five years have passed since the tree was moved and replanted. Over the course of those years, there have been difficulties. Water accumulating beneath the tree caused part of the root system to die, weakening it and allowing for the emergence of Hypoxylon canker, a tree disease with no effective treatment. The installation of a drainage and irrigation system allowed the roots to begin growing back, and today, the canker is in retreat.
Experts generally agree that if a transplanted tree survives for five years, its chances for continued survival increase. Today, absent any extraordinary circumstances, the survival of the Ghirardi oak seems assured. A lovely park named for the family has grown up around the tree, filled with native plants, water gardens, walking paths, and an outdoor classroom. In the midst of it all, the tree is thriving: producing its acorns, and standing sentinel amid the falling light.
Best of all, it no longer stands alone. Another great oak known as the Moonshine Tree lives nearby. According to Michael Ghirardi, it grew outside a shack in which his grandfather, along with other relatives from the Sarracco and Arofolo clans, distilled a little home brew.
Perhaps, when the moon is full and the night grows silent, the wind-ravaged trees of the middle coast will hear the call of these companions: “We have survived, and you will survive. We thick-barked ones always do.”
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