COLUMBIA — For more than a century, a Hackberry tree has spread its canopy across the grounds of Benton Elementary School.
Last fall, a severe windstorm put the beloved tree in jeopardy. During the storm, one of the large branches split from the trunk, causing it to become unstable.
Latin name: Celtis occidentalis
Origin: Native to North America
Family: Ulmaceae or Elm
Height: average 45 to 80 feet; as tall as 130 feet
Spread: 40 to 50 feet
Fruit: Small red-orange to deep-purple berries
Maximum age: 150-200 year
Source: U.S. Forest Service; U.S. Department of Agriculture
Afraid the tree could fall with children nearby, the administration consulted with forestry specialists and decided to remove it.
“The tree is dying and has to come down because it is a safety hazard,” said Troy Hogg, principal of Benton School.
Mindful of its history, the tree will be cut down Monday with children and others watching part of the operation from a safe distance.
“The tree has grown with the children of this school," Hogg said. "Benton alumni remember the tree from their school days, and it is very sad it has to come down.”
Neighbors, however, are skeptical. They say the decision is unwarranted and not enough attention has been directed to saving the Hackberry.
It is “obviously not dangerous since kids were playing under it Monday,” said Kay Gregory, who lives next to the school and objects to its removal.
“It looks perfectly healthy. They say has been struck by lightning and is diseased, but it looks OK to me,” she said.
Ann Marie Long sent the following message to the Missourian this week: “Of course they have not consulted anyone in the business of saving trees, or identifying vigorous crown growth as an indicator of perfect wellness."
At least five specialists were brought in for an assessment and deemed that the tree was beyond saving, Hogg said. They evaluated the tree and came to the same conclusion.
Arborists from the city and the state Department of Conservation, working with the school district, said it was only a matter of time before the tree fell.
Hogg said he is aware that this tree has “given shade to hundreds of thousands of children and adults in the neighborhood. It has grown with the children. When people remember Benton, they remember the tree.”
Ann Koenig, an urban forester with the Department of Conservation, examined the tree and agreed that “everyone values the tree, but we had to make the right decision for everyone.”
“There are lots of benefits of the tree, such as the shade, but trees don’t last forever and this one is starting to falter,” she said.
When the original school opened in 1896, the Hackberry was already standing on the property. A new school was built in 1927 at Hinkson and Ripley streets, and the tree remained to become an anchor in the playground.
The school hopes to make a table out of the stump and have a chainsaw artist create a memento from the remaining portion of the tree for the Festival of the Arts Day in May, Hogg said.
“Although the district contracted a company to remove the branches of the tree, we have asked them to leave us the stump and a 10-foot section,” he said.
He also encouraged anyone with memories who wants to celebrate the life of the tree with books, essays, art and other items. Photos of the tree can be found on the school's Facebook page.
Ann Alofs, third-grade teacher at Benton, said the tree's demise is symbolic because “Benton has been experiencing big changes in terms of lots of teachers retiring. It’s almost as if the tree knew it was time to go.”
Alofs reminisced about how every year “the children would ask about the bug that would lay eggs on the tree. They would always be talking about the tree.”
Susan Eggener, a parent who lives in the Benton-Stephens neighborhood, said she didn't think anyone would intentionally misdiagnose the tree, but "it will change the entire character of the playground.”
Fadre Maun, another parent, said a branch fell and almost hit her son, Ian, but her children have always loved to play around the tree.
"I hope to get a branch to remember,” she said.
Cathy Cox, home-school communicator, recalled when a child fell while playing around the tree, hurting her neck and back.
“As we were trying to make sure she wouldn’t move, she looked up at me while I was sitting on the cold ground next to her and said, ‘Ms. Cox, the leaves are so thick on the tree you can’t even see the sun.’ ”
Money from an Arbor Day grant will be used to plant new trees on the Benton grounds, Hogg said.
“The city comes in and plants the trees for us and then waters them for a year,” he said.
Gregory said she still wishes the tree would be preserved, but if it goes, she hopes it is replaced with a larger, more mature tree.
"Money should be spent to replace it with a big tree instead of small, stick-like trees," she said. "Landscaping with small trees will not make up for the loss of the tree.”
Cox said she also feels the pain. “It speaks to longevity and stability because it’s a piece of Benton history. With it leaving, it’s sad.”