Edgerton family treasures piece of 160-year-old historic oak

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Anna Marie Lux
Monday, March 17, 2014

MILTON--Lisa Messer called everyone she could think of to save the historic tree. When she failed, she wanted something to remind her of the most perfect bur oak she had ever seen.

Lisa got her wish this month, when her husband, Jeff, came home with a piece of the tree she has admired for 20 years.

The Messers are among a lucky few who were able to buy slabs of the landmark sentinel that once stood north of Milton.

Almost a year ago, the state Department of Transportation cut down the massive oak to make room for the Highway 26 expansion project.

Workers brought a 6,000-pound piece of the huge trunk to the Jefferson County Parks Department shop. Two bobcats with forks were needed to move the immense log into a storage building.

Earlier this month, parks department workers cut slabs from the piece, each about 6-inches thick and 53 inches in diameter.

Lisa and Jeff of rural Edgerton were among those who asked for a cross-section of the spreading oak that stood for 160 years or more in Jefferson County. They hope it can be used to teach others about the tree and its long history in southern Wisconsin.

But Lisa did not realize the trunk was so heavy.

She and Jeff decided to buy only half of a cross-section, weighing about 150 -pounds. Jeff and his son used a toboggan to slide the block of wood to their back porch. Then, they wrestled it into the basement.

“It is a piece of local history,” Jeff said. “To see something this big and heavy which is not made of steel is remarkable.”

With the help of a toothpick, Jeff has counted the crowd of rings in the cross-section. He has thought about what the landscape looked like when the tree was only inches high, and he has wondered how to save a place for such living legends in the future.

Kevin Wiesmann of the Jefferson County Parks Department cut the tree into slices called cookies using a Stihl chainsaw with a 36-inch cutting bar. He will tell you that, even in death, the good oak stayed strong.

“It is extremely hard wood,” Wiesmann said. “It took about 20 minutes to cut each cookie. I took my time and made sure the cuts matched up.”

When he worked for the U.S. Forest Service, Wiesmann served with one of the elite Hotshot firefighting crews in the West. Wiesmann felled big trees, including Douglas firs, to slow down and stop rampaging blazes.

None had flesh so solid or stout as the giant oak, he said.

The parks department had requested a piece of the tree, so workers could preserve and display it for people to see. They did not expect to get such a big chunk.

When some 50 or 60 people requested pieces, the department decided to sell them for $100 each.

“I was able to cut only 10 cookies from the tree,” Wiesmann said. “We sold them on a first-come, first-served basis.”

One slab will be placed at the Hoard Historical Museum in Fort Atkinson, where visitors will be able to count the rings and ponder the enormity of one tree's life. The cross-section is expected to be unveiled sometime in June.

In addition, craftsmen in Jefferson County are making bowls, lamps and pens from an irregular piece of the tree with plans to sell them.

In Rock County, the parks department has been selling a poster of the old oak in four seasons with photos by Tracy Hegg. So far, the sale of 80 posters has raised $800.

Both parks departments will use the money they raise to plant trees along the 39-mile Glacial River Trail that runs near Highway 26 between Janesville and Watertown.

Lisa knows that few really old trees remain on the landscape, and she wonders how long the enduring oak could have lived.

“We humans can't duplicate some things,” she said. “I am not an overly emotional person, but this perfect, healthy tree withstood 170-plus years of droughts, the coldest winters, summer storms, fire and people. Then, it was cut down because it was not convenient in our plans of the modern world. That is the tragedy.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Janesville Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or e-mail amarielux@gazettextra.com.


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