Roots of Half-Way Tree stretch into early 19th century
BRODHEAD—They say every person has a story. Maybe the same is true of trees, especially the old giants.
Nancy Carney knows. She has been keeper of the Half-Way Tree for 45 years.
Nancy and her late husband had no idea of the history rooted in their field when they bought their land south of Brodhead in 1969.
Eventually, Nancy learned about the storied oak with a spreading crown shaped like a full-feathered headdress.
“The town chairman came one day and told us about it,” Nancy recalls.
In the 1800s, American Indians used the tree as a marker along a worn east-to-west footpath.
A sign on Half-Way Tree Road explains:
“This bur oak marks the halfway point between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. Paced off by Indian runners and confirmed by the U.S. Survey in 1832.”
Modern calculations have found the middle point to be within six miles of the 200-year-old tree.
“The story of the tree is very unique,” said John Bernstein, vice president of the Brodhead Historical Society. “We talk about it to different people who tour the depot.”
He refers to the downtown depot museum, where visitors can learn about Brodhead's past.
“The tree has always been a point of interest,” said Betty Earleywine, museum curator. “Those at the historical society have always felt strongly about it.”
So does Nancy.
She keeps clippings about the oak with an almost 11-foot circumference. She remembers stories from people who lived on the farm before her. She keeps a watchful eye on the enduring creature with tangled limbs reaching skyward.
“I love that tree,” Nancy said.
Her role as caretaker comes with the land. She is the latest on a short list of property owners who long ago got their directive from an American Indian, or so the story goes.
Halfway through the 19th century, an Indian chief stood in the door of a blacksmith shop on the farm of Charles A. Warner. Warner bought the land with the tree in 1857.
The chief pointed to the tree and made the family understand that it should never be cut down.
Brodhead historians say the tree served as a meeting point and place to camp for native people, who traveled back and forth in spring and fall. In the spring of 1878, Indians made their last trip.
So far, the oak has withstood tomahawk blades, droughts and corn herbicides.
A young man earned his Eagle Scout Badge in 2000 by putting up a fence around the oak in a protective halo. Today, the lush tree cradles scattered saplings in its shade.
Author R. Bruce Allison writes about the oak in his book, “Every Root an Anchor: Wisconsin's Famous and Historic Trees.” For more than 40 years, Allison has been an arborist. He cares about old oaks and enjoys them for more than their size and beauty.
“They mark time and remind us that generations of people have walked in their shade,” he said.
He reminds us why it is important to share and record the stories of trees.
“They give us respect for the landscape and a greater desire to protect the landscape,” Allison said. “There are certain trees that stand out and deserve to be protected. This is certainly one of them.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org