Fading tree: The oak growing in the middle of Greencastle Road in northeastern Vigo County has lost portions of its branches and has hollow areas, county officials have learned. Its instability prompted county officials to temporarily close the road at the nearest intersections leading to the tree. Photo courtesy Brendan Kearns
Fading tree: The oak growing in the middle of Greencastle Road in northeastern Vigo County has lost portions of its branches and has hollow areas, county officials have learned. Its instability prompted county officials to temporarily close the road at the nearest intersections leading to the tree. Photo courtesy Brendan Kearns

Oddities involving trees aren’t exclusive to Vigo County.

A mulberry tree grows in the apex of the Decatur County Courthouse in Greensburg, Indiana. Likewise, a 100-foot-tall cottonwood sits in the middle of an intersection of two country roads in Audubon County, Iowa, creating a tree-roundabout of sorts.

Those two beloved, quirky trees have one important advantage — they’re still healthy.

An ailing oak growing in the middle of Greencastle Road in northeastern Vigo County has drawn this community’s attention this week. Two large sections of the tree fell last weekend, without any adverse weather. That prompted county officials to temporarily close portions of the road at intersections nearest to the tree, especially after thunderstorms were forecast for Thursday and the potential for other portions of the tree to fall. That could create a traffic hazard.

Sections of Greencastle Road nearest to the tree will remain closed through the weekend, county commissioner Brendan Kearns said Thursday morning.

The tree’s future is in question, given its instability. Two arborists evaluated the oak earlier this week and believe the two main remaining limbs that are parallel to the road are in good shape, but the trunk — which has hollow areas — isn’t in good shape, Kearns said.

“There is decay in the center of the trunk, and that is why the limbs are falling off the trunk,” Kearns explained. “The trunk cannot support the lateral limbs.”

A third arborist will inspect the tree this weekend, using a bucket truck to look down into the trunk. “That will tell us if the trunk can be saved,” Kearns said.

It’s getting special care, given the oak’s historic status, stemming from its unique location.

The tree’s background is a bit mysterious. No one living likely knows the precise reason the oak sits in the middle of Greencastle Road. Tribune-Star columnist Mike Lunsford explained the most plausible theories about the tree in a 2010 column. He cited historian Joe Koch, who wrote the book “Nevins Township: A Historical-Pictorial History of Her Towns, People and Happenings.”

Greencastle Road initially went around one side of the oak, but when that path got too wet, travelers drove around the other side, Koch said in Lunsford’s column. That unofficial detour eventually created two paths around the tree. Attempts by road crews to remove the oak in 1918 and during the 1930s were repelled by protective neighbors, Lunsford wrote.

Nearly a century later, it’s still there, but fading. Bees occupy spots inside the tree, indicating it’s hollow, county engineer Larry Robbins said this week.

If the third arborist’s assessment indicates the trunk can’t be saved and the tree must be removed, any usable wood from the oak could be used to create crafts, Kearns said. Also, local beekeepers would safely relocate the bees elsewhere.

Kearns feels the same sentimental connection to the oak in the middle of Greencastle Road as many community members, but also realizes its risk to passing motorists.

“As a conservation-minded person, I want to preserve as much as possible. And as a history-minded person, I want to preserve it,” Kearns said. “But I also want it to be safe.”

The tall cottonwood growing in the intersection of Nighthawk Avenue and 350th Street in rural Audubon County, Iowa, was accidentally planted, according to legend. A 19th-century surveyor marked the boundary between Audubon and Cass counties by cutting a cottonwood branch and sticking it in the ground. It grew. Nearly 150 years later, the cottonwood towers 100 feet into the rural Iowa air and has become the Tree in the Middle of the Road.

“I think it’s pretty healthy for its age. I haven’t seen any rot in the trunk,” Sarah Slater, Audubon County Economic Development and Tourism director, said Thursday by phone from Brayton, Iowa.

Even though the tree is several miles from the nearest town and Interstate 80, a steady stream of tourists divert from their travels to check it out, Slater said. The tree has been featured on the covers of Our Iowa and Iowa magazines this year. It was the backdrop for a video by folk singer Nella Thomas and a recent wedding. The tourism office has sold “Tree in the Middle of the Road” signs. The cottonwood has its own Facebook page, too.

Cottonwoods typically live 70 to 100 years, but can linger a few centuries, according to Lake Forest College. Audubon County appears prepared for the future moment when their famous cottonwood dies. A sapling, started from the tree in the middle of the road, was planted in Brayton City Park more than 40 years ago and now is “pretty large,” Slater said.

The original cottonwood in the intersection “is very endearing to the surrounding communities,” she added. “It’s just a loved tree.”

So is the mulberry tree growing atop the courthouse in Greensburg. Folks there have also dealt with the mortality of their notable tree. The current mulberry isn’t the original “Tower Tree.” It’s actually the latest in a series of Tower Trees.

Greensburgers spotted the first Tower Tree sprout atop their courthouse in the early 1870s, according to the county’s official website. Curiosity grew as the sprout turned into five shrubs 110 feet above the ground. Three were removed in 1888 over concerns they would damage the structure. One of the survivors reached 15 feet tall before dying. Soon, two more trees were spotted growing in the tower.

Speculation swirled about the species of the tree that remains. A linden? A poplar? The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., was enlisted and concluded it was a large tooth aspen. The most recent determination, by Purdue University foresters, was that Greensburg’s current Tower Tree is a mulberry.

The present tree is Greensburg’s calling card and the first image shown on Decatur County’s website. Motorists exit off Interstate 74 to check it out.

“You can tell the tourists, because they stop and are taking pictures of the tower,” said Carrie Shumaker, director of the Historical Society of Decatur County.

As with the Vigo County and Audubon County trees, Greensburg’s Tower Trees include some mystery and legend. No one knows for sure how seeds have flown to that spot 110 feet high, according to the county’s historical account. Most likely, the seeds that did land there took root in dust from the tower’s interior and moisture from weather.

And, alas, all three oddity trees have a finite lifespan. If the Greencastle Road tree has reached its end, it will leave behind a fun niche in Vigo County history.

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