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Mike Lunsford

August 23, 2010

The Off Season: A lesson on stubbornness from the tree in the road

TERRE HAUTE — Not long ago, while I stood alongside our country road waiting for traffic to pass me by and leave me to my walk and my thoughts, a perfect-looking couple in a perfect-looking blue convertible stopped to ask, “Do you happen to know how to get to the tree in the middle of the road?”

Indeed, I did, I told them, then proceeded to give them step-by-step directions, that if misinterpreted by a single turn at a single stop sign would have led them toward Bridgeton and Mansfield and places unknown. I am presuming the explorers eventually found their destination, or simply gave up and made their way home, perhaps mumbling as they watched their gas gauge fall, that they shouldn’t have asked that simpleton standing in the roadside weeds to point their way.

The tree in question, a huge oak, sits, as my grandfather would have said, “smack-dab” in the middle of what is known as Greencastle Road, a mostly paved strip of blacktop that runs along the northern edge of Vigo County on its way through the woods to Clay and on into Putnam. Put more succinctly, it stands about two miles north of Fontanet, a town once named “Fountainette” for the springs that flowed out of the hillsides to its west.

I’d like to believe that the tree is still there because one lone farmer, armed with a shotgun, stood decades ago to protect it against a crew of men holding an impressive cross-cut saw. It was his tree on his property, and he’d be hanged before he let any township trustee or county councilman order it cut and cleared for the sake of progress.

In reality, no one probably knows the whole story why the oak remains where it is. It has been bypassed by countless other road crews and utility trucks and tree trimmers in the many subsequent years, a pleasant green, growing relic surviving for tradition’s sake in an age when so many bits of custom and history and culture are being bulldozed and paved over without protest.

Just a few weeks ago, I drove past the tree on the way to a family reunion in Knightsville, the little burg that sits just east of Brazil. That town was once bustling with storefronts and railroads, and we meet there each year at its community center, all of us Lunsfords and Sneddons and Risslers and Herzogs, as a family that was once mostly Woods and Kendalls. We all sprouted out of Clay County a century ago to head to farmsteads and small towns in surrounding counties and to work and build and marry and change names. So, on what is usually a scorching August Sunday, we load our cars with potato salad and fried chicken to spend the afternoon together.

For my family, that means passing the tree, just as some of us did when we drove toward Fontanet with our grandparents years ago, my Grandfather Roy at the wheel.  He never failed to act as if he had suddenly lost control of the car and would narrowly miss it on one side or the other, although probably not as narrowly as we imagined. His need for speed, which he shared with my otherwise benign grandmother, also meant a brisk drive across the hills and humps of the Rio Grande Road, the windows down, our hair blowing in the backseat breeze. It was tradition.

I asked Joe Koch about the tree. Joe is 82 years old and lives in Brazil, and he just happens to have written a book about places like Fontanet and Sulfur Springs and Coal Bluff. A photo of the oak is in his “Nevins Township: A Historical-Pictorial History of Her Towns, People, and Happenings.”

“I've talked to a lot of people about that tree,” Joe said on what was yet another hot August Sunday afternoon. “I've come to the conclusion that people started going around that tree when it was too wet on the other side of it. It was a good place for shade in the old days, and I heard that farmers would rest there when they drove their livestock toward Terre Haute.”

Joe told me that turkey farmers used to pass by the tree just to let their birds roost in its big, spreading branches.

“If you look that area over, you'll see that those hills and hollers end right in that area. Raccoon Creek used to actually run a lot closer to that place before it filled in with wind-blown sand. The tree just became a good place to stop,” he says.

An undated article that Joe scrounged up for me about the tree was written by Beatrice Biggs, who hailed from the Fontanet area herself, and at one time worked for our own Tribune-Star — well, for one paper or the other, anyway, before the merger. Biggs wrote that a good friend of hers, Beatrice Collier Pefley, recalled a time when her father, Dave Collier, saved the tree from being cut down.

It was 1918, Biggs said, and the Colliers, who had at one time lived in Bridgeton, occupied a home near the tree. A road crew had been instructed to remove the oak, and Collier “convinced” the crew that no one was going to cut it down as long as he lived. Years later, during the Great Depression, another crew — this one laboring for the WPA (the Works Progress Administration) — was put to work taking the tree down. The Colliers had been replaced by the Johnsons, and George Johnson “convinced” that crew as well — this time with his scatter gun — that the tree was going to stay put a while longer.

Families have come and gone to the houses along Greencastle Road, and that narrow path has been paved and patched time and time again. The tree now bears the garishness of nearly a half-dozen yellow and black traffic signs for safety's sake, and even the winding creek that used to run near it has turned itself around and headed north, with a little help from a steam shovel in about 1875.

But the tree remains, a testament to persistence and luck and stubbornness.

Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@aol.com, or by regular mail c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at http://tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com to learn more about his books.

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