Hamilton County mourns fall of landmark courthouse tree

Hamilton County mourns fall of landmark courthouse tree

September 19th, 2012 by Kate Belz in News

Hamilton County employees David Helton, left, and Kerry McConnon prepare to remove undamaged benches Tuesday after a large Osage orange tree fell overnight on the lawn of the Hamilton County Courthouse.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.


Thousands of couples were married beneath the osage orange tree at the steps of the Hamilton County Courthouse over the years. The Times Free Press requested couples share their memories about their ceremonies and the tree.

"May of 2001 I was married under that tree. This story is so poignant for me as my husband died just a couple of weeks ago. At his visitation on a memory CD of pictures I had a picture of the day we married standing under that tree."

- Cindy Young

"I am sad. My wife and I married there April 21, 1999. My fifth grade DARE teacher Edward Gomez was the preacher. He is dead now. That tree held lots of meaning to us. I would love a branch."

- Devin Hodge

"We have been married for 3 years now. We had a destination wedding in Isla Mujeres but made it official when our families and us came back to the States. The minister took us outside and under the tree to do the ceremony. Something I thought was going to be so 'straight to the point' was very memorable ... In fact it was almost as nice as the sun setting in Cancun on the beach as we said our vows there. It's a shame, it holds a special memory in my heart!"

- John Caudill


• The common name for an osage orange is "bodark," a name drawn from the French phrase "bois d'arc" or "bow wood," which was coined when French explorers saw Native Americans using the wood for bows.

• The tree is in the same family as the mulberry tree.

• The osage orange at the Hamilton County Courthouse is more than 100 years old, though county and city officials are unsure exactly when it was planted. Chattanooga's city forester, Gene Hyde, is hoping to cut into the tree's trunk and see if he can identify its age.

Source: Great Plains Nature Center, Chattanooga City Forester Gene Hyde.


Because of root damage and internal cracking, the osage orange cannot be saved. Workers will begin removing the tree on Saturday morning. They plan to cut up the tree in sections that can be used for future woodcarving projects. County officials are hoping to make some of the wood available to the public.

The young Osage orange tree rooted itself as the Civil War dust was still settling.

It wasn't a native tree. Osage oranges grew in Texas and Oklahoma, where the tree's strong and supple wood was prized by Osage and Comanche tribes for bow carving.

But someone or something planted the curious orange tree on the plot of land where the Hamilton County Courthouse was built in the 1870s.

It stood sentry through a violent storm in May 1910, looking on as the old courthouse was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.

A new courthouse was built, and the tree kept growing -- soon towering above the building's Corinthian columns at about 35 feet. As its leaves yellowed in the fall, county workers called it the jewel of the courthouse lawn.

Besides clergy, the Osage orange was often the only witness as thousands of brides and grooms exchanged vows under its branches.

It stayed standing as those couples split up or returned year after year for anniversaries. When wives and husbands became widows and widowers, some returned to the foot of the tree for solace.

As politicians played musical chairs within the courthouse walls, the Osage orange stayed put. As elections came and went, the tree remained everyone's ally.

It was a tall, silent bystander as accused men entered its doors, and watched as they walked out free or in chains.

Later in its life, the tree itself entered the courtrooms. As branches fell off, Roy Roberts -- father of former County Executive Dalton Roberts -- took them to his woodworking shop and returned with burnished gavels for county judges and commissioners.

As the tree aged and scarred, it only looked more majestic. Moss filled in its folded bark. Little children traced faces in the trunk's orange-veined knots.

When some of the large branches grew heavy and began to split apart, county officials rigged cables to bind its wounds together.

Chattanooga's forester, Gene Hyde, checked on the tree this year. Its roots looked solid and sound, he reported.

But as rains this week loosened the soil, the tree's roots strained and its leafy branches bent. And Tuesday morning, without warning, the old Osage orange fell.

It was a hard fall, but a considerate one. Its top branches just brushed the front steps of the courthouse, doing no damage to the building. It dodged the bronze bust of Confederate Lt. Gen. A.P. Stewart and barely spared a plaque and bench that dedicated the shady area at the foot of the tree to the memory of gavel-carving Roberts.

Paul Parker, the county's real property manager, looked at the tree every day for 28 years through the window of his fourth-floor office across the street. As he peered across the wet lawn Tuesday morning, he saw a part of the tree he'd never seen before: The naked orange roots.

Parker walked across the street to join a small group of county workers, lawyers and officials who milled quietly around the mass of branches and leaves and ripped-up flower beds. It was such a beauty of a tree, a grand old tree, they kept repeating as they snapped photos and traded ideas of projects the wood could be used for.

Parker looked on with his hands in his pockets.

"It's like losing an old friend," he said softly, surveying the sprawled giant. "Things would always shift and change. But this tree was always here."