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  Forest Preserve Oaks Serve as Witnesses to History
  Posted: 9/1/2016
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Preserve Moment

The Forest Preserve District of Will County has thousands of trees on its 22,000 acres. But at Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve in Crete Township, one tree stands out.

Affectionately referred to as "The Old Oak" by District staff, this bur oak tree has been alive for an estimated 250 years. The tree, which stands tall beside Scout Trail near the preserve's salamander ponds, is a short walk from Plum Creek Nature Center. The oak’s twisty branches and height so intrigued volunteer Phil Pursley, he has been photographing the tree since 2013.

"It's old, very large and definitely a survivor," Pursley said in an email. "I have hiked extensively throughout Goodenow Grove, and it is the largest tree I've encountered." Pursley said that while working for the South Cook County Mosquito Abatement agency for more than 25 years, he saw many large trees. But "The Old Oak" in Goodenow Grove ranks high among them.

"For an oak to get this size, it would have to have endured floods, drought, fire, and most of all, the impact of humans," he explained. "The history this tree has experienced beneath its branches is the history of this area and our country. Native Americans, European pioneers and perhaps escaped slaves working their way north to freedom were witnessed by this living entity. In Civil War battleground sites, there are trees that have survived and are alive today. They are special and are called 'Witness Trees.' This is Goodenow Grove's and perhaps Will County's ‘Witness Tree!'"

Pursley has worked with staff at Goodenow Grove's Plum Creek Nature Center to determine the oak’s age. They measured the circumference of the tree at a height of 4.5 feet from the ground.

"We then divided this number by pi (3.14 ...) to get a diameter, then multiplied this number by a growth factor of five," Pursley explained. "We came up with an age of over 250 years."

In 2013, Pursley decided to photograph the "behemoth" once a month using a wide-angle lens from approximately the same place. "It was a challenge especially when the weather and/or mosquitoes wouldn’t cooperate," he wrote. "During this challenge, I observed many things including the falling of one of its large branches. I tried to document it all in my once-a-month photo shoot."

Pursley isn't the only person to admire the tree.

"It has a lot of character and has been a favorite with staff and visitors," said Bob Bryerton, an interpretive naturalist at the Nature Center. The oak's location is marked on the colorful wall map inside the Nature Center so visitors can easily find it.

"The Old Oak" at Goodenow Grove isn't the only specimen worth noting in the District. Chris Gutmann, facility supervisor at the Forest Preserve's Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville, said Isle a la Cache features an even older bur oak specimen on the south end of the preserve. The oak was included in the site's "OAKtober" program in fall 2015.

Gutmann said by using Marlin Bowles' growth table from the Morton Arboretum, staff members believe the bur oak is 330 years old. That means the oak was alive during the 18th century fur trade era that is highlighted at the Museum.

Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock

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