When the middle tree of the three big white oaks standing in Ron Broyles’ yard fell across Big Springs Road on Father’s Day, a significant piece of U.S. history was reduced to little more than scrap and kindling.
“I’ve got plenty of firewood now,” Broyles said with a wry chuckle, surveying the massive remnants of the base of the downed tree, some eight to 10 feet in diameter, lying in his yard next to a huge hole.
Just across the way, on the other side of Big Springs Road, the remains of the uppermost portions of the tree are still lying in state, clusters of branches and leaves and smaller logs heaped beneath a recently restored power line.
What made the tree special, beyond its age (over 200 years) and its obvious natural beauty, was its provenance. Broyles, a tall, trim fellow in his late 50s, explains that when he purchased his neat, white home on the 2500 block of Big Springs Road in 2010, he was much taken by the trio of oaks in the front yard. “I didn’t know the history, yet, I just loved those beautiful trees,” he said.
His appreciation turned to curiosity when the home’s previous owner explained the significance of the trees, which date to 1797, when President John Adams sent a survey group led by Benjamin Hawkins to set a hard boundary between U.S. territory and that of the native-American Cherokee.
‘Infringing on the Cherokee land’
“There were European settlers infringing on the Cherokee land,” said Broyles. “So Adams sent Col. Benjamin Hawkins to create a firm line of demarcation.”
Beginning in Kingston, Hawkins and his men created the Hawkins Line, running all the way to the North Carolina border. The party marked the boundary by creating a signpost every six miles, Broyles says. In fields and other open areas, the demarcation was most commonly achieved by planting a stand of three large trees.
“Of course, it was only the first of several boundaries,” Broyles added. “Because the settlers didn’t pay much attention to the lines, and kept infringing on Cherokee territory, pushing the boundary further and further down.”
Upon learning of the Hawkins Line history, Broyles began researching on his own. In addition to doing considerable online and library reading, he also pulled in a team of explorers armed with metal detectors to scour his property for more clues. The team turned up three mottled, badly rusted horseshoes, the deepest of which was buried eight inches underground.
Broyles said the standard archaeological wisdom holds that every four inches of depth is roughly equivalent to 100 years of history. By that measure, the oldest of the three horseshoes would peg to about the time of Hawkins’ venture.
“The deepest one, it could be from that survey crew,” Broyles said. “I’m trying to find a farrier who might be able to help me date and identify it.”
In more recent months, though, Broyles’ curiosity turned to worry, when he learned that all wasn’t well with his trees. His concern began one evening when his daughter pointed out that the middle oak, already afflicted with a pronounced lean, appeared to be coming out of the ground. “I go to work early, and come home late, so I hadn’t been paying attention,” he says.
Worried that the leviathan might fall and cause damage or injury, he consulted an arborist.
“He told me he thought there was some rot going on, but that the tree wasn’t in any imminent danger,” Broyles said.
Scarcely two weeks later, it happened. Broyles was driving home from a Father’s Day picnic around 10:30 p.m., when he turned onto the unexpectedly dark corridor of Big Springs Road. “There were no lights on, anywhere,” he said. “That was unsettling.
“Then I got two blocks from my home, and there was a guy standing out with a flashlight, waving people down. He told me, ‘There’s a big tree down just up the way, and it’s knocked the power lines out.’ I said, ‘I know. It’s my tree.’”
Emergency crews were already clustered at Broyles’ home when he arrived moments later. The big oak had fallen, tearing a gaping hole in Broyles’ yard and taking down the power lines running along the opposite side of Big Springs Road.
Broyles said arborists have since speculated that the tree’s fate was likely sealed when road crews cut through the area to build Big Springs Road, early in the 20th century. Through their excavations, the workers inadvertently covered up the tree’s root flairs, i.e. the point of a tree where the trunk ends and branches off into the root system.
“Any time you bury the root flairs, you eventually kill the tree,” he said. “It took a long time, but it finally killed this one.”
Now Broyles is concerned about the two remaining trees in his yard, neither of which has visible root flairs. “I’d hate to lose them, but I’m worried.
“I might be able to dig around them, create tiers around them and save them.” He noted that one of the oaks is leaning slightly in the direction of his home, the shadows of its massive lower branches looming ominously over his roof. “Or they may have to come down.”
But though he may lose the lovely white oaks that so drew him to this property in the first place, Broyles remains philosophical. “For U.S. history, the story of these trees is very interesting,” he said.
“For the Cherokee, though, they’re just another reminder of broken promises, of a boundary that just kept on moving. So maybe, karmically speaking, these trees are supposed to fall.”