Originally created 06/18/04

A witness to history

What took more than 200 years to grow will all come down today in just four hours.

When Augusta State University's Arsenal Oak is just stump size at about noon, officials say they should have a pretty good idea from its tree rings of how long the oak, estimated to be the oldest in the Augusta area at between 250 and 400 years old, has been there.

"We can get fairly close," said Henry Frischknecht, the owner of Empire Tree and Turf in Augusta, which will cut the tree down starting at about 8 a.m. "I'm saying 250 (years old), but we'll find out. Maybe I'm totally wrong."

Today's cutting comes after two years of Augusta State's official symbol battling a killer disease called hypoxylon canker - considered a cancer among trees. Mr. Frischknecht said treatments have prolonged its life for the past two years, but it likely wouldn't make it through this summer. Lately, falling limbs from the 100-foot-tall tree have become a safety concern.

On Thursday, Augusta State officials and students, past and present, gave the tree an early celebratory funeral beneath a cloud-patched sky that no longer required shade from the Arsenal Oak's many withered leaves. The gathering was complete with a song from a choir, remembrances by many who recalled their old friend on hot days and references to how the oak would be remembered and continue to represent the college.

As his eyes combed the crowd of about 200 people, Augusta State President William Bloodworth remembered the oak as "a silent witness to innumerable human events."

It was there, he said, at the time of the French and Indian War in the 1750s. And it was present when a military arsenal was placed there in the 1800s, later providing the basis for the tree's moniker. Some even speculate that the poet Stephen Vincent Benet might have written underneath the tree while his father served as commandant at the arsenal.

Now the tree's memory is staked on several ventures: a sprout taken from the oak that is growing at Augusta State's greenhouse, an offspring from an acorn that will later be planted on campus, continuing cloning attempts, a bench to be constructed from some of the tree's wood, and a bronze marker of the tree's footprint that might someday go where the tree was.

There's also the nonprofit group American Forests, which will haul away much of the tree's remains today on a trailer to a Florida storage area where the wood will be turned into a to-be-determined product and later sold to help with future conservation efforts.

"In its death, it will continue to stand as a great symbol for Augusta State," said Carlos Hart, of American Forests.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.

The Arsenal Oak will be cut down starting at 8 a.m. today. By noon, the oak should be just a stump. Roads near the tree will be closed for the use of a crane.


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