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A Tree Falls

The old oak stood where Richmond had faced its most desperate hour. Then came the storm.

It must have shaken the earth when it fell, like a giant in a fairy story. It wasn’t a particularly tall tree, even for a white oak — maybe 70 or 80 feet — but it was massive, with spreading limbs and a trunk far too wide to reach your arms around.

It was old. How old, no one is sure. White oaks can live to be 450. This one wasn’t that old, surely. But it had been growing there a long time. People said it dated back to before the Civil War.

Lots of Varina locals knew the great oak. It grew right next to Route 5, beside Old Osborne Turnpike, the road from Richmond to the antebellum plantations. Sometimes cars pulled up and people got out to look at a historic marker that had been put up beside it in 2002. Its pale-gray limbs stretched over the road, sometimes growing huge and low enough to shear the tops off unwary tractor-trailers.

In 2012, a few days before Independence Day, a freakish storm called a derecho roared across the region, blasting winds in straight gusts of up to 80 mph. Overcome, the tree broke and crashed to the ground, covering the turnpike.

A crew from the Virginia Department of Transportation came, since the tree had fallen on its roadway. Someone called the property owner, Gray Land and Development Co. Russell Aaronson, the company president, who came to the site was asked what to do with the remains.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” he recalls, eight months later. “I didn’t have a good plan.” But Aaronson was very aware of what the tree meant to many people, and knew they would be upset. A few years earlier, the county had approved the site, a longtime family farm, as a location for a high-end development with up to 2,800 housing units and 1.6 million square feet of commercial space. The site is called Tree Hill, and people thought of the tree and the place as synonymous.

With all that in mind, Aaronson asked the VDOT workers to take the pieces further onto the property until he could figure out what to do. A VDOT contract administrator told the Times-Dispatch that the trunk weighed about 12 tons, so much it nearly overwhelmed a pair of bulldozers working together to move it.

But eventually, they hauled what was left of it a few hundred yards away from the highway. There they laid the tree upon the earth, forming a rough line of chunks of limbs and trunk and branches. And there it has stayed.

People cared about the tree mostly because of what it meant. Most people saw the white oak was as much as a symbol as a living thing.

The oak stood, the story went, at the place Richmond gave up the Civil War — where the the Confederate capital surrendered to the Union. Landmarks are how we pin memories and history to the land, and the gigantic oak was a good one.

When the tree fell, quite a few local residents phoned their county supervisor, Tyrone Nelson, demanding that he take steps to save what he could. “They wanted to at least try to salvage as much of the tree as possible,” Nelson recalls. “It was a piece of history.”

Nelson, who grew up nearby, calls the tree a marker for many of the suffering and importance of the Civil War. “The ultimate perception is that the surrender happened there, and that’s where the tree was,” he says. “And that is what was shared by the community.”

Parts of the story are verifiable. On April 3, 1865, just past dawn, a small group of civilians set out along Osborne Turnpike to find the enemy. The still air held a pall of smoke that turned the rising sun into a baleful crimson ball.

The capital of the Confederacy was in chaos. A war that had left an estimated 750,000 dead was stumbling to its miserable end. The night before, Gen. Robert E. Lee had told Jefferson Davis that Richmond was impossible to protect from approaching federal troops; it had to be evacuated. A shocked Davis had informed his fellow Confederates and escaped, leaving Richmond Mayor Joseph Mayo in charge. Fleeing Confederate soldiers set afire the city’s storehouses of tobacco, cotton and munitions. The fires had spread through the warehouses and buildings of downtown.

Mayor Mayo, along with the city council, had decided that two things had to happen, says Nelson Lankford, a vice president at the Virginia Historical Society and author of “Richmond Burning,” a history of the last days of the Civil War: First, they needed to secure the city’s liquor supply, which they did by dumping liquor barrels (that hadn’t worked out; people simply lapped it out of the gutters).

Second, they would surrender Richmond to the Union.

That was why Mayo, almost 70, and his small contingent were trudging down the road that now is Route 5. They passed the line of fortifications, and near the intersection of Osborne Turnpike and New Market Road encountered a group of about 40 Union soldiers approaching the city.

The Union contingent was led by two majors, Atherton H. Stevens Jr. and Eugene E. Graves. The majors spoke with Mayo and accepted his letter of surrender. They soon passed the letter to their commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel. By sundown, the fires would be extinguished, the city under Union control.

All of that can be documented. Other parts are more complicated.

The exact location of the surrender is hard to determine. The records say it was near the intersection of Osborne Turnpike and New Market Road. The great white oak stood about 100 yards from there. Of course, it might not have existed then. No one has determined how old it was.

Henry Nelson, a historian of Henrico and past president of the Association for the Preservation of Henrico Antiquities, co-wrote the historic marker about the surrender of Richmond that stands at the site. “Was that tree there?” he asks. “We know there was a tree in the area. But it’s more or less community legend that it was this one.”

Everyone agrees that the white oak seemed old enough to have been alive 147 years ago. In any case, the tree was so impressive that in time people started calling it the Surrender Tree.

“When it fell, it was like someone you knew dying in his prime,” says the historian. “It was so large, so powerful. It was upsetting. …

“It’s a landmark,” he adds, slipping into the present tense, the way people do when speaking of the dead. “It’s part of our community’s legend and history.”

In 2001, the National Arbor Day Foundation asked Americans to vote for the national tree. The winner, by a wide margin, was the oak, beating out the redwood, maple and pine. The foundation noted the oak’s reputation for strength and stability.

When the Wye Oak in Massachusetts, the nation’s largest oak, fell in a 2002 storm, scientists cloned it and planted saplings; woodworkers made the governor a desk from its remains.

The Stonewall Jackson Prayer Tree in Augusta County, under which Jackson and his men prayed in June 1862, fell in 2011. The Virginia Historical Society sells writing pens, bowls and ornaments made
from it.

The old white oak at Tree Hill was more than a story. It was alive. Every spring, it sprouted leaves that were silver-pink and furred with down, then turned green over summer. Every fall it put out acorns, more sweet than those of other oak species, that fed squirrels and deer.

Michael Brown grew up with it. He moved to the property in 1977, when he was 7 years old. His stepfather, William Burlee III, farmed soybeans and corn; Burlee’s father had bought the property in the early 1900s. Brown remembers the tree as one of many he and his friends played under. Later, he was married on the farm, and lived in a cottage there with his new wife while he started his pottery business.

“It was just a tree,” Brown says. “I just took it for granted. It was just this big ancient tree at the end of the driveway.”

His stepfather told him the oak had been planted on an anniversary of the surrender of Richmond. Brown doesn’t remember anyone calling it the Surrender Tree until recently.

Some years ago, the oak at Tree Hill caught the eye of Joel Koci. A professional arborist and a certified forester since 1975, Koci knew an old tree when he saw one. It had good color and good foliage, though he thought its proximity to the road probably kept it from being as healthy or growing as tall as it could have otherwise.

But Koci didn’t like some of what he saw. For decades, poison ivy had twined around its trunk and up its arms, sprawling through its canopy, growing as thick as a forearm. Koci worried that the vines trapped rain and dew inside them, and kept people from seeing what might have been going wrong. He fretted too that the vast amount of poison ivy caught the wind, perhaps reducing the tree’s resistance to strong gusts.

Koci liked the tree. He invited the team putting together a book about important Virginia trees to see it, but the book was too far along to consider the white oak. As far as Koci could tell, the only attention it got was occasional prunings by VDOT workers. “It was a real well-kept secret,” Koci says. “Not many people knew
about it. … But there’s a lot of history with it.”

When it fell, he mourned. “If it had had a little TLC, it probably could have survived,” he muses. Still, he adds, “Everything is finite. Nothing is immortal.”

Richmond Mayor Joseph Mayo, who turned the city over to the Union to save it, died in 1872, at age 77, in New Kent County; he is buried in Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond. The same year, Major Atherton H. Stevens Jr., the first Union soldier to enter Richmond, died in his native Massachusetts; he is buried there. Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, who formally took possession of Richmond for the Northern forces in 1865, died in 1884, of typhoid fever; he is buried in Cincinnati. Union Major Eugene E. Graves, the youngest of the four men, died in 1891; he is buried in West Thompson, Conn.

The great white oak people called the Surrender Tree died in 2012 and lies in a field in Varina, a few hundred yards from where it had grown. After the storm, a crew came and ground down the old tree’s splintered stump, leaving a circle of wood chips and sawdust 20 paces across. All things pass.

Aaronson, president of the company that owns the land and the tree, hopes that when its wood has aged enough, artisans will turn it into commemorative artifacts, the way some other well-known trees have been. Bowls, perhaps, or gavels, or pens.

A few yards from the tree’s remains, the 200-hundred-year-old farmhouse stands boarded up. When the property is developed — the company is waiting for the economy to improve — the farmhouse will become a sales office, then a community center. From there, the land slips toward the James, where a river bend gives the illusion that Richmond is on the opposite bank. From this vantage point, the city’s downtown buildings are clearly visible.

It’s easy to imagine Mayo and Stevens and Graves, the men of the Confederacy and the Union, walking to this spot to view the city burning at the end of the great war. Before them, smoke billowing into the sky above the water. Behind them, perhaps, the great oak, its broad limbs and strong trunk standing solid, immovable, like it would stand forever.