Weather, rot ends life of 200-plus year old oak tree on East Tennessee State University campus

Becky Campbell • Updated Aug 13, 2018 at 7:12 PM

One of the oldest documented oak trees in Johnson City fell during a thunderstorm and downpour last week and left a shaded lawn open to the sun for the first time in years.

The centuries old white oak tree on the East Tennessee State University campus fell Friday night,  which left a large gaping whole in the dynamics of the space it occupied since long before Johnson City or the school were anyone’s dream.

For many former and current ETSU students, the tree was a landmark of sorts. It stood in a grassy area between the Culp Center and Sherrod Library, growing taller each year as the university also grew and expanded. After the tree fell, arborist Travis Watson said he tried to count the rings, but the middle of the tree was rotted away, making it impossible to get an accurate age.

“It was definitely the oldest oak,” Watson said. “My best estimate is that it was well over 200 years. It was 60 to 70 feet tall,” and the canopy “basically that entire lawn. That tree saw the very beginning days of East Tennessee Teachers College. It’s witnessed Johnson City’s growth.”

The oak and two other old trees on camps — an ash and poplar behind Centennial Hall, “grew up together,” he said.

Watson said he’s unsure why the tree had begun to rot from the center, but being in an urban environment isn’t the best situation for older trees.

“Just being in an urban environment is a tough place for a tree to live,” he said. “It showed some signs of age and had some big cuts in it where limbs died in the past. I was hoping that tree would outlive my tenure. That’s a pretty special tree for us.”

Watson said grounds crews had done fertilization and “de-compaction” in that area to improve the conditions around the tree.

“It’s not one I expected to just fall over,” he said. “Safety is huge to us. I’ve done a lot of removal the campus population has questioned, but if there’s any concern we could have a catastrophe like that, it’s better,” to remove a potential hazard.

Watson said with all the rain this summer the soil was saturated as well as the tree.

“There’s a lot of moisture in the trees. The wood itself is saturated,” he said. Between that and the decay in the tree, “there was something that tipped the scale.”

Watson said people shouldn’t be concerned about the fate of the fallen tree because the university contracts with a local wood artist to make items from trees that are cut down, pruned or fall.

“There were a lot of ideas, a lot of good ideas,” of what to do with the wood. “What we tend to do in this type of situation is we have an artist the university has under contract to make items out of trees that fall or if we do major pruning. That’s our standard operating procedure. We’re really limited on resources as far as manpower and we’re restrained by time. This all has to be taken care of ideally before students come back. Just in handling those big pieces of wood ..... we don’t always have the ability to do that.”

Local artisan and woodworker Rick Murray is the artist who will make items from the tree for the university, Watson said. Anyone who wants more information about that process can contact Murray through his website, www.woodbowlsandvases.com.

“It was a striking tree,” Watson said. “There’s going to be a big hole in the sky for a long, long time. That tree was the prominent feature in that space. We have a lot of events in that space. .... We’re going to miss the shade (and) it’ll change the dynamic.

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