by Tim Gilmore, 8/13/2015
In 1964, the year the five-decade Florida Times-Union journalist Jessie-Lynne Kerr began reporting, Treaty Oak entered a political fracas as “800 years old” in Kerr’s March 12th article and 500 years old on March 24th. Activists predicted the great tree’s imminent demise.
Wealthy Jacksonville philanthropist Jessie Ball DuPont had purchased the land on which the tree grew “against possible destruction as the city expanded” back in the 1930s, and 1964 threatened to bring the tree to a crossroads.
The March 12th article referred to the urban legends that helped save the old oak in the first place. “According to legend, Indians and early white settlers conducted peace talks under the branches.”
Specifically, in the 1930s, local newspaperman Pat Moran claimed that Andrew Jackson, the town’s namesake who never actually visited, and Seminole Chief Osceola had brokered a peace deal beneath this tree. It had been a century since Jackson was president.
In 1964, the branches of this 800- or 500- or 250-year-old tree had come to imminent danger from the city’s wild children. Experts counted “135 children in the tree at one time” that spring.
The early March headline screamed, “Old Treaty Oak Rapidly Dying of Mistreatment,” and the story led with the threat from entomologists and horticulturists that “If prompt action isn’t taken to preserve Jacksonville’s historic Treaty Oak, the old tree won’t live past this year.”
The tree’s supporters argued the city had already mistreated it for a century.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Southbank of downtown was its own municipality, and at first, the only way to get from Jacksonville to South Jacksonville was by railroad bridge over the river or by boat.
South Jacksonville, incorporated in 1907, had no lights and no paved streets. It had 600 residents. But it did have rides.
That same year, Dixieland Park opened in South Jacksonville, with a 160-foot roller coaster and a merry-go-round called the Flying Jenny. Babe Ruth would come hit baseballs there and John Philip Sousa directed marches.
In the middle of Dixieland Park stood the giant oak, decked out in electric lights, with a plaque attached to its trunk:
“The oldest and largest tree in Florida, 160 feet across under the branches. At noon it shades a space 190 feet in diameter. Students of forestry say it is over 400 years old. Body of the tree is over nine feet in circumference. It was Osceola’s favorite camp ground and was generally used for Indian councils of war.”
Dixieland Park closed with World War I, but the tree had been growing long before and would continue long afterward.
By 1964, however, the Times-Union warned that the tree, abutted by a junkyard, was in shock.
“The bark of the Treaty Oak has been cut into by pocket-knife-wielding Romeos bent on inscribing their love for posterity,” while “an unromantic fence post” had long tried to impale a limb, and “rope swings strung by aspiring Tarzans have worn through to the vital cambium layer, which is only as thick as a piece of paper.”
Twelve days later, Jessie Ball DuPont ordered funds to erect a tall barbed-wire fence around the tree, brace falling branches, and offer the City the seven downtown lots containing the tree if the City would condemn the five contingent lots.
When she died in 1970, the City rechristened the grounds Jessie Ball DuPont Park.
Though Treaty Oak is featured as one of 17 trees in Jeffrey Meyer’s 2001 book America’s Famous and Historic Trees: From George Washington’s Tulip Poplar to Elvis Presley’s Pin Oak, it didn’t make it to the PBS documentary Silent Witnesses, because the old tree’s “history” is less than historical.
Some historians discount altogether the inaccurate stories communities tell, while others chart such stories as barometers of a community’s understandings and concerns across time.