Living Witness: Historic Trees of Texas

Living Witness: Historic Trees of Texas

by Ralph Yznaga

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 In a beautiful tribute to the natural heritage of the Lone Star State, photographer Ralph Yznaga celebrates the strong connections between Texans and their trees. Inspired by the old Texas Forest Service book, Famous Trees of Texas, Yznaga has captured the continuing attachment we have to these magnificent reminders of our culture and history

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 In a beautiful tribute to the natural heritage of the Lone Star State, photographer Ralph Yznaga celebrates the strong connections between Texans and their trees. Inspired by the old Texas Forest Service book, Famous Trees of Texas, Yznaga has captured the continuing attachment we have to these magnificent reminders of our culture and history. Stunning images, stories, a detailed map, and driving directions to thirty-seven famous (and infamous) trees help us appreciate how entwined the lives of people and trees are:

  • The Treaty Oak, memorialized in Texas lore as a meeting place for Native Americans and also as the site of Stephen F. Austin’s first boundary treaty with local Indians;
  • The Burnt Oak, standing witness to the dramatic events leading up to the Battle of the Alamo, one of the largest known specimens of Quercus virginiana var. fusiformis;
  • The Sam Houston Kissing Oak, said to occupy the location of a Houston campaign speech near San Marcos, where the "Old Hero" kissed local young women who presented him with a flag;
  • The Great Goose Island Tree, believed to be more than a thousand years old; and many others.
The photographs in Living Witness premiered at the groundbreaking of the Mollie Steves Zachry Texas Arboretum at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Set to open in 2012, the centennial of Lady Bird Johnson’s birth, the arboretum will feature descendents of historic trees in the Hall of Texas Heroes.

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Editorial Reviews

Dan Rather

“Trees are not something that make the news every night in Texas—or anywhere else. But perhaps they should, as they are so vitally important to our health, our culture, and our future. In Living Witness: Historic Trees of Texas, Ralph Yznaga’s labor of love stands as a fitting testimony to the majestic and essential role that trees have played, and will always play in Texas. I am not exactly a “tree-hugger”, but as a fisherman who loves nature, and as an anchorman who loves a good story, I highly recommend this book.”--Dan Rather, HDNET, and former anchor, CBS News

T.R. Fehrenbach

"People rarely associate trees with Texas. However, these (mostly oaks, which are more lasting) have indeed been witnesses to history, and even played a part in it. This book is a beautifully produced small gem and should be a part of every Texana collection."--T.R. Fehrenbach

"Photographer Ralph Yznaga focuses on 36 venerable Texas trees, from the giant pecan that grew from the small tree former Gov. James S. Hogg wanted planted next to his grave to Austin's ancient Treaty Oak, still struggling from a poisoning in 1989. There's at least one color image of each tree and a short history."
Glen Dromgoole

"Yznaga's volume is a full-color tribute to some spectacular Texas trees."--Glen Dromgoole, The Eagle

Donnis Baggett

"The book is beautifully illustrated with full-color photographs of each historic tree. It would be a nice reference to keep in the console of the SUV."--Donnis Baggett, editor and publisher of the Waco Tribune-Herald

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Texas A&M University Press
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Living Witness

Historic Trees of Texas

By Ralph Yznaga

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2012 Ralph Yznaga
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-767-6


The Hogg Pecan


* A governor's final request: plant trees at my grave and share the fruit with the people of our state.

From the Interstate 35 local lanes In Austin, take exit 235 A and follow the access road (turning left at Fifteenth if coming from the north) until you are northbound on the access road, just north of Fifteenth Street. Turn east (right) onto Sixteenth Street and drive a short distance to the main entrance of Oakwood Cemetery at Sixteenth and Navasota streets. Enter the cemetery grounds and go to the fifth driveway on the left, where you turn and proceed a tenth of a mile to the Hogg burial plot on the right.

"Let my children plant at the head of my grave a pecan tree and at my feet an old-fashioned walnut tree. And when these trees shall bear, let the pecans and the walnuts be given out among the plain people so that they may plant them and make Texas a land of trees." When Governor James Stephen Hogg died in 1906, the state honored this deathbed request and planted the trees. When the trees matured, the Department of Horticulture at Texas A&M distributed the nuts to groups around the state. One of the original pecan trees planted then continues to gracefully stand watch over the governor's resting place. Many noted individuals, both living trees and entombed Texans, occupy the beautiful cemetery.

The Lone Star Pecan


* After surviving tornadoes, freezes, and droughts, it earned the right to survive a parking garage.

From the local lanes of Interstate 35, take one of the downtown exits and continue on the access road to Sixth Street. Head west on Sixth Street, cross Congress Avenue, and continue seven blocks to West Avenue, turning right on West. The tree is behind the GSD&M office building at 828 West Sixth Street.

When Roy Spence, chairman and founder of GSD&M, an Austin-based advertising agency, decided to build a parking garage, he was told that the beloved pecan tree behind the building would have to be cut down. Undaunted, he decided to have the tree relocated a distance of forty feet, at great cost. The towering tree holds the title of being the largest tree ever moved in the state, proving once again that things, even landscaping, are truly bigger in Texas.

The Lone Star Pecan presides over two park benches and a giant barbecue pit. Office parties are often held beneath the expansive tree. The greenbelt of nearby Shoal Creek ensures that the pecans that fall end up feeding squirrels, birds, and other city-dwelling animals.

POSTSCRIPT: Unfortunately the Lone Star Pecan succumbed to disease and drought in September of 2011, and had to be cut down. Much of the wood was used to help rebuild homes destroyed in the Bastrop County wildfire.

The Treaty Oak


* People gathered here to find common cause, but today, keeping the Treaty Oak alive is the cause.

From the local lanes of Interstate 35, take one of the downtown exits and continue on the access road to Sixth Street. Head west on Sixth Street, crossing first Congress Avenue and then North Lamar Boulevard. A block after Lamar, turn left on Baylor Street. Treaty Oak Park Is on the east side of Baylor Street, before you reach Fifth Street.

One of the most famous trees in Texas, the mighty Treaty Oak has had its lease on life extended many times. Once voted the "most perfect specimen of an oak tree in the United States," the tree is the last of a group of twelve trees growing at a spot where Texas tribes made treaties among themselves. Stephen F. Austin is believed to have negotiated one of the earliest treaties between Texas settlers and Native Americans under the branches of this tree. Intriguingly, the Indians believed drinking tea brewed from its leaves could make someone fall hopelessly in love. It must work on some level, as the tree is one of the beloved icons of Central Texas.

In the 1930s the state purchased the tree to prevent it from being cut down. Victim of a horrific herbicide poisoning in 1989, the tree has survived a lengthy battle for existence, thanks to the efforts of concerned people across the state. Quite recently, the efforts have finally been declared a complete success. A small park surrounds the grounds, and visitors to Austin often stop to pay their respects to the indomitable spirit of this tree.


The Indian Marker Tree


* Long ago, the Comanches tied down these branches to mark a campsite, but today, those branches point back in time.

Burnet lies about thirty-five miles west of Interstate 35 and Georgetown on State Route 29. On State Route 29 (Polk Street) in downtown Burnet, head west until you cross Hamilton Creek (and Polk Street becomes Buchanan Drive). The tree is on the left, between the creek and a large restaurant/inn that faces Buchanan and South Hamilton Creek Drives.

Close to the center of Burnet, next door to a motel that has been converted into a retirement community facility, stands one of the most unusual-looking trees in the state. The arms of this amazing tree reach out hundreds of feet, mostly sideways. Long ago, the Comanches of Central Texas marked favorable campsites by tying down saplings. The plentiful fresh water, shade, and numerous pecan trees make it is easy to see why the People, as the Comanches called themselves, so often chose to camp in this spot.

According to the early settlers, the plains nomads would silently appear, set up camp, enjoy the cool waters for a few days, and depart just as un-remarkably Perhaps the tree marked a direction for other members of the tribe to follow. Like the free-riding Comanches themselves, the true meaning is lost to us. A pleasant park surrounds the tree, testimony to the good judgment of the Lords of the Southern Plains.


The Center Oak


* Once considered the very center of Texas, the tree has expired but the legend lives on.

To reach the site from the intersection of US Highways 281 and 84 on the Hamilton-Coryell county line (at the town of Evant), head west on US 84 about nine miles, passing through Star and Center City. Shortly after passing Center City, turn left (south) on County Road 332 and about a hundred yards down, just before the cemetery, the Center Oak sits inside a triangular island formed by three roadways.

Center City was never really the center of the state, nor was it a city Still, legends carry authority in Texas, and today, the ruined oak tree located there is still famous for being the very center point of the state. All that remains of the town is, fittingly, a cemetery and the dogged beliefs of a few locals. Regardless, the scenic Hill Country drive makes a visit to the former town and tree worth the trip.

The withered oak tree is no longer alive; only the trunk remains. Apparently, the tree was struck by lightning a number of years ago, but a cursory examination of the trunk reveals ample evidence of wood ants.


The Century Tree


* In a place where traditions hold strength, this revered tree has the power to unite two people for life.

From the western entrance to the Texas A&M University campus on Old Main Drive across from the railroad tracks, head into campus on Old Main, cross the Military Walk, and you will be facing the Academic Building. The Century Tree will be on your left. For complete information about visiting and parking at Texas A&M University, go to

Few places honor their traditions with more reverence than Texas A&M University. One such story concerns the legend of the Century Tree. One of the first trees planted on campus, the venerable oak occupies a large area across from the stately Academic Building and is considered the most romantic spot on campus. No one knows when or how the tradition started, but when you walk under the tree with someone special, it is believed you will spend your life together. Countless proposals and weddings have taken place beneath the tree. Members of the Corps of Cadets accompany their proposals with a military saber arch from fellow cadets. Special friendships can also be cemented for life beneath the tree, but woe to the hapless soul who passes beneath the tree alone—they are destined to live a solitary life.

Surrounded by some of the most picturesque buildings on campus, the grass alongside the broad canopy is a favorite spot for students to meet and relax. Of course, the youthful picnickers carefully avoid sitting directly beneath the spread. Former Aggies, often accompanied by small children, can also be seen taking family photos on the benches beneath the oak. Infrequently, you can observe someone who apparently disregards the legend and will blithely walk alone beneath the tree. Still, as they make their way beneath the boughs, their pace seems just a little quicker than normal. Legends, while not always honored, are rarely ignored.


The Columbus Oak


* If it's the second largest tree in the state, don't tell the people who live here.

To view the Columbus Oak, take State Route 71 or Interstate 10 to Columbus and exit on Business Route 71 (South Fannin Street). Follow Fannln/BR 71 to its intersection with Walnut Street (US Highway 90). Turn west on Walnut. The tree is on Walnut Street between Rampart Street and Veterans Drive (old Texas Highway 90) near the Columbus City Cemetery.

The Columbus Oak is officially the second largest tree in Texas. When I stopped in a local diner for directions, I learned that people here believe their tree is actually the largest. They contend that the largest tree actually consists of two intertwined trunks and thus should relinquish the title. Whatever its rank among Texas trees, the Columbus Oak is an awe-inspiring sight.

The trunk of this vast tree is impossibly gnarled, providing evidence of its tremendous age. Picture a tree that stretches the length of a New York City block. The next time you are on Interstate 10 in the vicinity of Columbus, take a little time and go see it. Considering that conservative estimates place its age at more than five hundred years, chances are good it will be there waiting for you.

The Columbus Court Oak


* The tree whose broad limbs provided an early court for a new country.

To view the remains of the Court Oak, travel to Columbus by State Route 71 or Interstate 10 and exit at Business Route 71 (South Fannin Street). Continue on Fannin/BR 71 to US Highway 90 (Walnut Street) and turn east. Go six blocks, to Travis Street. The tree is located in the middle of Travis Street, just to the east of the Colorado County Courthouse.

When Mexican forces under General Santa Anna were moving eastward through Texas, fleeing settlers burned the original Columbus courthouse so that it wouldn't fall into enemy hands. After the war, court sessions reconvened under a large oak tree until a new courthouse could be built. The tree soon acquired the simple name, the "Court Oak."

The textures and colors of the antique trunk have the look of an old painting. Standing here, you can picture early settlers holding court beneath the broad limbs. The carefully tended flowerbed at the base of the tree demonstrates the townspeople's pride in their history.


The Fleming Oak


* Because it helped save his life, he would punish with death anyone who removed it.

Comanche is located in the county of the same name, southwest of Fort Worth on the Texas Forts Trail. The Fleming Oak is on the southwest corner of the courthouse square at Central Avenue (US Highway 377/67) and Austin Street (State Route 16).

When Martin Fleming arrived in Texas in 1854, Comanches set upon his family. He survived the ordeal by huddling in the space between two trunks of a large tree. Soon, settlers developed the area enough to establish a town named Comanche, with the tree located in a corner of the town square. Years later, around 1910, workers attempted to cut down the tree to further develop their town. A much older Martin Fleming suggested that anyone cutting his tree would soon be receiving a blast from his "number 10." Since it was unclear whether he was referring to his size 10 boots or 10-gauge shotgun, the workers wisely departed. The tree, needless to say, is still standing.

The Fleming Oak looms high over the Comanche town square across from the beautiful art moderne style courthouse and next to a log cabin that serves as a visitor center. While the Fleming Oak sits adjacent to one of many Texas streets named after Sam Houston, the true hero of this Texas town remains "Old Mart" Fleming, whose belligerence ensured that the tree would remain a fixture of the colorful town for a long while.


The Traders Oak


The tree that reminds us that the entrepreneurial spirit has always been part of the Texas landscape.

From Interstate 35W on the east side of downtown Fort Worth, take exit 53 and head west on Fast North-side Drive. The road curves sharply to the left. Go past Cold Spring Road and take the exit ramp for Samuels Avenue. Turn right (south) on Samuels and proceed past Tenth Street to Traders Oak Park on the left. The tree is at the crest of the hill.

After the US Army established a military post called Fort Worth, two enterprising traders built a trading post exactly a mile away. Henry Clay Daggett and Archibald Frankhn Leonard knew that regulations prohibited trading posts within a mile of any fort, so they would have measured the distance carefully. Their building stood beneath a large oak tree and next to a stream frequented by Native Americans. The trading post was successful and was the polling place for the first Tarrant County election, in 1850. The post finally closed in 1853, as the traders relocated operations to the abandoned fort.

The Turner Oak


* When the city of Fort Worth needed a miracle, there really was a pot of gold beneath this tree.

From the Tarrant County Courthouse (100 West Weatherford Street at Houston Street), go around the courthouse by proceeding east on Weatherford, north on Commerce, and left on Belknap Street so that you are heading west. Proceed west on Belknap for not quite half a mile and turn right on North Henderson Street. Go about three-tenths of a mile, then take a left on White Settlement Drive and proceed just over a mile to Greenwood Cemetery on the right. The Turner Oak is located in the middle of a round median in the main drive, about two hundred yards from the gate. There is a bronze marker near the tree.

Charles Turner was one of the founders of Fort Worth. When secession talk filled the air in 1861, he expressed his dismay at the idea of leaving the Union. When the state went ahead and seceded, he grudgingly went along and even paid to raise a company of Confederate soldiers. Still, he had enough vision to bury a cache of gold under a large oak tree for the community to use during the hard Reconstruction years. Ironically, the tree that played a key role in Fort Worth's survival sits in a historic graveyard.

According to the commemorative plaque at the tree, "On this spot, Charles Turner (1822–1873) buried gold to help Fort Worth survive the critical reconstruction years. Charles Turner was a captain in the Rangers, one of the first settlers of Tarrant County and among those who selected the site for the city of Fort Worth."


The Borden Oak


* A tree that symbolized the spirit of a city that refused to surrender.

From the Interstate 45 Causeway (which becomes Broadway/Avenue J) onto Galveston Island, turn right on Thirty-fifth Street and go south for one block to Avenue K. Turn right and proceed to 3503 Avenue K, where the tree is located.

Following the Great Storm of 1900, Galveston began the massive project of constructing a seawall and, incredibly, raising the elevation of the city by as much as seventeen feet. While the designers of the huge project intended to ensure that the city would survive future hurricanes, the massive undertaking spelled doom for the trees, whose trunks were buried beneath salty earth dumped by the truckload. One man, Thomas Henry Borden (the brother of the man who invented the process of condensing milk) refused to let the beloved oak tree he planted die. After building a dike to redirect the salty fill dirt, he continually washed the roots with fresh water until natural rain and time had leached the excess salt from the fill and healthy dirt could surround the trunk. Amazingly, a full five foot length of the trunk is below ground level, but, like the city of Galveston, the tree that refused to surrender lives on.


The Baptist Oak


* Not all churches have spires and stained glass windows.

Goliad lies southwest of Victoria at the junction of US Highways 59 (Pearl Street) and 183 (Jefferson Street). From that intersection, take Pearl Street west four blocks and turn left on South Chilton Avenue. The Baptist Oak stands at 248 South Chilton Avenue, across the street from the Goliad city hall and fire station.

In May 1849, twelve Baptist settlers organized the first Baptist church in southeastern Texas. The pastor had recently arrived from Georgia, bringing his small congregation with him. Joining him for the inaugural services beneath an expansive oak tree were his wife, the couple's two children, and eight other people, including two slaves, a husband and wife.

The tree stands on the quiet street only a block from the town square, among beautiful, well-maintained homes. The plaque on the square tells us that the First Baptist Church of Goliad continues to serve the area.


Excerpted from Living Witness by Ralph Yznaga. Copyright © 2012 Ralph Yznaga. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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