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Oldest tree in Minneapolis coming down; neighbors share their memories

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Marked for removal
This bur oak tree, believed to be more than 300 years ago, is slated to be removed from the Seward neighborhood in Minneapolis later this year because it has died. The orange X signifies that it is meant to be cut down.
MPR Photo/Rupa Shenoy

Residents in Minneapolis' Seward neighborhood are mourning the imminent loss of the city's oldest tree. It's a bur oak that has stood watch from a bluff above the Mississippi River gorge for at least 300 years. 

The tree looks old and tired. There isn't a green leaf on it. A bright orange X spray-painted on the trunk marks its fate  -- the park district has declared the bur oak dead, destined for removal. 

But for now it's still standing on a strip of parkland near the Franklin Avenue bridge, and there's a constant flow of visitors. 

They stand solemnly, like they're visiting a sickbed or even a grave. Many tell strangers about times they've spent under the tree's wide canopy.

"I think most of the time I've been by the tree I've been by myself," said park district commissioner Scott Vreeland. "My family's been there. But it's probably for most people kind of an intimate thing, where it's just them and the tree." 

The tree is in Vreeland's district, and he's done his research. People were studying and writing about the oak more than 100 years ago. 

Hollow tree
A hollow developed in the old oak over time. You can duck into the tree and stand upright comfortably. When you look up, you can see out the top of the trunk, to the sky.
MPR Photo/Rupa Shenoy

A 1950s newspaper article Vreeland found  speculates on its age. 

"It already had a good start when Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in France in 1431. It was quite a tree when Columbus recorded his visit to America in 1492," the article stated. "Our tree could've been nearly 200 years old when the English defeated the Spanish armada in 1588. By the time Capt. John Smith settled Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, the tree was nearly half the size it is today."

Minneapolis Park Board foresters say the oak is  likely not as old as the article suggests. Still, they say it was probably a sapling when Father Hennepin first wandered through what would become Minneapolis in 1680. 

The oldest photographs of the tree show it standing alone, with no other trees around it. Many have grown near it since then, and many have fallen to logging, disease or development.  

The old oak survived, growing more than four stories tall, with a trunk 51 inches across. 

View from inside the tree
The view from inside the hollow of an old bur oak tree in Minneapolis. A person can stand comfortably inside the hollow, and look through the top of the tree to the sky. The tree, believed to be more than 300 years old, will be cut down this fall because it's dead.
MPR Photo/Rupa Shenoy

"It is so old, it helps you feel grounded and connected to something bigger than ourselves," said Rosemary Frazel, who lives nearby and began visiting the tree 20 years ago, before her children were born. She keeps coming back. 

"When my older daughter stopped nursing we had a weaning party there, and it was just a special way to observe that moment as she moved into childhood and let go of babyhood," she said.

Frazel's daughter is now 12 years old, and she has a younger sister. 

"My kids enjoy going [inside]. You know how you can look up at the hole in the top? So they're older and they think that's fun to do."

Frazel's talking about a hollow the oak developed over time. You can duck into the tree and stand upright comfortably. When you look up, you see out the top of the trunk, to the sky. 

Vreeland, Gordon
Minneapolis Park Board commissioner Scott Vreeland, left, and City Council member Cam Gordon stand in front of the ancient oak tree. Both men say they have come to sit under the tree many times over the years -- as have many other Seward neighborhood residents.
MPR Photo/Rupa Shenoy

Minneapolis City Council member Cam Gordon has often found prayers written on pieces of paper, folded and tucked inside the hollow. 

He's lived across the street from the tree for 20 years, and says there used to be a plaque attached to a rock beside the oak that declared it the city's oldest known living tree. The last time he saw the plaque was about five years ago. 

"[I was] setting it back up against the rock and thinking, when they come to cut the grass they'll pick it up, and someone will figure out how to put it back on. Then when I came back, somebody had taken it." 

Every spring, Gordon watches the oak and waits to see if it will come back -- if it will bud -- and it did, every year until this year. 

"I was watching and waiting and watching and waiting, and when I saw that it didn't come back I didn't really know what to do," Gordon said. 

He posted a notice about the tree on a neighborhood website. The community began to organize a memorial.

"It was shortly after that that this big orange X appeared on the tree, which I wasn't expecting," he said.

There's no firm plan for what comes next. The Park Board says it will remove the tree in the fall. 

But some have suggested leaving the trunk and cutting the rest of the tree down. There have been proposals for a sculpture to be made of its wood. Gordon would like to see another plaque.

Everyone agrees a new bur oak should be planted on the same spot.