The first day of spring doesn’t feel that way as John Sam Williamson and Chris Starbuck meet up on a county road outside Columbia, Mo.
Temperatures are below freezing and a cold wind is whipping along the flat land here on the Missouri River bottoms. Williamson, a farmer whose family has owned this land for six generations, tugs at the bill of his John Deere cap and Starbuck, a retired University of Missouri plant scientist, pulls his Arborist Society stocking cap further down over his ears.
The two meet up here occasionally to discuss a beloved Boone County treasure – a 350-year-old, 90-foot-tall bur oak tree that everyone calls the Big Tree
Growing along a lonely stretch of curvy country road, the Big Tree is a stately sentry, guarding the flat farmland that lies around it. It has witnessed many late-night summer parties, marriage proposals and political campaigns. And it has been photographed more times than a beauty queen, with the Web littered with her pictures – many of them found on her Facebook page, which has more than 7,200 fans.
The Big Tree has survived floods, lightning strikes and all kinds of prairie punishments and withstood them all. That is, until last year’s devastating drought that struck the Great Plains, when Starbuck and Williamson noticed that she was suffering. Her leaves were changing colors and wilting and despite her roots reaching down to an estimated 8 to 10 feet, they still couldn’t get to the depleted water table, Starbuck said.
So Starbuck called Williamson in August and told him he was going to have to do something that’s never been done in the 177 years the family has watched over the Big Tree. The day after the call, Williamson hauled an 850-gallon tank down the road from his home and watered the Big Tree.
“By the time the water all ran out, it had all soaked in the ground. There was no standing water anywhere,” Williamson said. “There were cracks in the ground and it’s pretty absorbent. It just soaked it up like a sponge.”
All told, Williamson figures he gave the Big Tree about 3,000 gallons of water. But when word got out via the Columbia Daily Tribune that the Big Tree was hurting, others brought more. Calls and emails with advice and offers of help came in from all over the country. Eric Krueger, a tree fan and history buff from Houston, Texas, said he saw the story online and it moved him to offer Williamson some money.
“To me, that tree is no different than a beached whale. You have a beached whale, what does the community do? They all come to its rescue,” he said. “Evidently, this beached whale in Missouri, nobody was really coming to its rescue but this one farmer.”
The Big Tree has certainly stood through its share of history. A forestry club from the university bored through its trunk in the early 1950s and estimated the tree was 300 years old. The same club put a bronze plate near the tree, naming it the Williamson Bur Oak and reminiscing about the buffalo that must have sought shade under its branches.
The bronze plate is gone now, pried off its perch by thieves long ago, and the graffiti-covered stone is the only man-made marker there. Some people have suggested that he put a chain-link fence around it to keep it safe from vehicles and vandals, but Williamson said he wants it to remain a community property, open to all.
“I think that would destroy its beauty,” he said. “It’s natural, just like it’s always been here.”
The Big Tree is a part of the family, Williamson said, and it is placed in many of the family photos in his home. It’s always been there, he said, been there before his great-great grandfather bought the land in 1835, and they have always set the planting seasons by it.
“My dad used to tell the story that his dad, who died before I was born, said that it was time to plant corn on our farm when the leaves on the bur oak tree were the size of a squirrel’s ear,” Williamson said. “So that would be April.”
Starbuck has taken many photos of the tree he calls “Champ,” named after her two-year reign in 2009 and 2010 as the champion bur oak on the National Register of Big Trees. Starbuck, who lives nearby, said he often drives by the Big Tree and sees people just standing there, in awe of the stunning tree. He feels it, too.
“I still get that reaction when I go out and take pictures of the tree in all kinds of conditions,” he said. “When I walk up to it, it’s almost a religious experience sometimes.”
People are attracted to the local landmark for many reasons. Grant Connette and Katie LaJeunesse Connette moved to Columbia from the East a couple years ago for a job and graduate school. They took their engagement photos there, dancing under the Big Tree, which had become a symbol for their time together in Missouri, they said.
“I think there’s just something majestic about how it stands alone out in the middle of a corn field. It’s just so big and wide and sprawling,” Grant Connette said. “I think it just has a special aura to it.”
Because the tree is so hardy, many have picked up its acorns and started new trees. Some of those sprouts are growing in Starbuck’s yard. Williamson, too, has an offspring of the Big Tree growing in his backyard, already about 25 feet tall and holding its own.
So how will the original Big Tree fare this summer? That’s hard to predict, Starbuck said. Already, the area is lacking several inches of rain, despite spring snow storms. And, the tree has been in decline since the flood of 1993, when she was covered in eight feet of water, he said.
But both of the caretakers said they believe the Big Tree will be standing long after we’re all gone.
“This tree is genetically superior, or else it wouldn’t have lived this long. It’s also lucky. It’s been through a lot. It’s been through floods and droughts and lightning strikes and things and it’s still here,” Williamson said. “I would predict and I think Chris has said this too, it will probably outlive all of us.”
This story originally aired as part of Business Beat, a weekly program about business and economics in mid-Missouri.