COLUMBIA — It was the end of an era Monday afternoon at Benton Elementary School.
The 70-foot hackberry tree that stood on school property for more than 100 years was removed because it was considered a safety hazard by several specialists. The last piece fell at 3:23 p.m.
At 8 a.m. workers from Arthur Ratliff Tree and Stump Removal began moving up the tree in a bucket truck. They marked the trunk to be cut in sections, and ropes were used to lower the branches.
When only 20 feet were left, a rope was attached to the top and the notches cut into the bottom so a Bobcat could pull it over.
Some of the tree will remain in the playground. The stump will become a table, and a portion will be made into a keepsake by a chainsaw artist for the school's Festival of the Arts Day in May.
The rest will be recycled.
"We make mulch out of the smaller pieces of the tree and keep the larger pieces for firewood," said Arthur Ratliff, part-owner of the company, in a phone interview.
Many students watched the beginning of the removal process from a safe distance, then observed the progress during recess.
"The tree was my first friend at school," said first-grader Logan Morris. "I waited under it until someone asked me to play with them, and then I made friends."
The constant hum of the wood chipper was a distinct feature on the playground and a painful reminder of the fate of the doomed tree.
Joyce Coats, a retired teacher who taught at Benton for 29 years, had returned Monday to substitute.
"I remember doing lots of writing and looking at the wildlife under that tree," she said. "It will be missed."
Kathleen Casper, a fourth-grade teacher, said it was a huge part of the Benton community.
"I did a lot under the tree," she said. "I feel the children learned more outside and under the tree."
Kay Allen, a resident of the Benton-Stephens neighborhood, came out to see the hackberry one last time during her lunch break.
"It's sad to see another old tree in the neighborhood be torn down because of age, disease or overbuilding," Allen said. "I hope that they take some of the money they would've used to preserve the tree to build a shady spot for the kids to hang out."
She said she was amazed to see how many of the core branches were dead and gray in the center.
"It's a testament to a well-planted and good species of tree."
Scott Ratliff, a part-owner of tree removal company, said the tree was not healthy.
"It is definitely sad to take down a tree of that age, but its main trunk had split and was unstable."
Principal Troy Hogg said safety was the primary concern in the decision to remove the tree.
Students have been studying trees for the past week and a half, and it means much more to them now that it is tied to something, he said.
"We are teaching them why trees are important and hopefully, they will pay it forward in their future," Hogg said.
The overwhelming sentiment during the day was sorrow for the cherished friend who will be missed.
"It was a very peaceful place for children and adults alike on this campus," Casper said, on the verge of tears. "It is so sad."