Missouri champion tree stands tall as local landmark

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A group of cyclists take a short break near the Big Tree. photo by Asa Lory

Atreyo Ghosh

For more than 350 years, it has stood resilient and weathered mighty floods and sweltering droughts.
The Big Tree, as the locals call it, is the champion Burr Oak of Missouri, which designates it as the largest tree in the state on several measurements. It also holds the title of co-champion Burr Oak for the country as a whole.
This gigantic tree, located near McBaine, Mo., is on the property of John Sam Williamson, dubbed the “Keeper of the Tree” by the community. Last summer, Missouri faced a substantial drought, which caused some concern for the tree’s health. Although not entirely necessary, Williamson decided to water the Big Tree as a precaution, an act that caught the attention of a few visitors hanging around at the tree. When Williamson left town for a few days, some people watered the tree in his absence. After the Columbia Daily Tribune and other publications wrote stories about his watering the tree, Williamson said he received a vast array of correspondence.
“We got letters and calls and emails from all over the country, East coast, West coast, Florida, about the tree, and people who remembered the tree and thanking me for taking care of it,” Williamson said. “Somebody who — the letter was from Columbia, but they didn’t put their name on it — sent a $5 bill to help with expenses, although there really weren’t any expenses, just some electricity to pump the water.”

The champion Burr Oak of Missouri, known as ‘The Big Tree,’ basks in the new spring sunlight, reguvinating itself with fresh rainwater, accompanied by common visitors.
The champion Burr Oak of Missouri, known as ‘The Big Tree,’ basks in the new spring sunlight, reguvinating itself with fresh rainwater, accompanied by common visitors.
The Big Tree, Williamson said, enjoys a lot of warm public sentiment. While some people suggest he build a fence around the tree for its protection, he doesn’t want to prevent people from getting near the tree or tarnish the natural look of the area.
A number of people have an attachment to the tree and ask Williamson to hold funerals or weddings there. Williamson said a neighbor held a funeral at the tree, although he was adamant about not letting anyone be buried there, not wanting the area to become a graveyard. Williamson’s own daughter became engaged under the tree; the couple even returned to the tree after their wedding at Williamson’s house to take wedding photos near it.
In addition to the community as a whole, RBHS students are also fond of the Big Tree. Other students may not have strong sentiments about the tree but drive down to it just to hang out with friends in good weather and enjoy the ambiance.
Junior Alex Griner goes to the tree about once a month in the spring and summer and said it’s a good place to spend time with friends. The tree is isolated, Griner said, and a place where few people disturb others.
“It’s just a place where we can go. We all know about it, so it’s fun; [we] just relax there,” Griner said. “It’s isolated and far away, and there’s not a lot of people around that will bother you, and you can just get away from the city.”
Blankets in hand, Griner and his group of friends piled in his Prius late at night and went down to the tree early during first semester. They lay there and looked at the stars, an experience Griner said was nice, quiet and peaceful. While the tree isn’t a place of too much personal value for Griner, it serves as a fun place to go and as a landmark.
What makes the tree special is “that it’s still around. A lot of old trees are knocked down for construction and everything, and that’s what’s so cool. It’s isolated out there, and it’s not torn down for the land or anything like that,” Griner said. “I like how big it is, of course, and it’s cool that they have a tree that old and everything around still … but anything specific, significant that it does, that I get from it? Not really.”
While the Big Tree may be the largest tree around Columbia, it isn’t the Missouri champion tree nearest the city. There are a total of eight champion trees in the Boone County region, however smaller than the Burr Oak. Some of these trees are located near the downtown area, on the University of Missouri-Columbia’s campus.
To senior Maddy Roland, the Big Tree is an escape from the city and represents the way things used to be. If the weather is nice, she might go to the tree every other week or so. Roland said the tree is a sign of security to people and shows that there are places where you can step back, instead of living in a fast-paced society.
A group of cyclists take a short break near the Big Tree.  photo by Asa Lory
A group of cyclists take a short break near the Big Tree.
Photo by Asa Lory
The tree is “a place to relax and [feel] serenity, and it’s surrounded by all flatland, and it’s in the country, so it’s like a place to … just get away from the city life, even though Columbia’s a small … city,” Roland said. “I don’t live in the country. I live in a neighborhood, and I’m more of an introvert, so I like being in the area, in a big open area, where I’m the only one, or just with very few people.”
Williamson’s family bought the farm the tree is on in 1835, but the tree has been there much longer than his family. He said the tree is a part of his family.
However, the tree’s age is starting to show.
The tree “means an awful lot, and there’s some sentimental things … [but] it’s on its decline. It’s like an older person,” Williamson said, “It’s still alive. It’s still producing acorns in good years and leaves and things, but it’s on a decline.”
Williamson lives a mile from the tree and sees it every day. If something bad occurs, he can take care of it immediately and tend to the tree. Events the tree face range from droughts to litter to the recent spray-painting of “PROM?” on its trunk.
An unknown person spray-painted the word in orange in the middle of the tree, five feet wide. The tree carries other wounds as well. Carved out in one corner of the tree is a heart with initials gouged into it. Near the bottom of the tree, concrete plugs a medium-sized hole, which is also riddled with graffiti.
Sometime in the near future, Williamson plans on clearing out the brush near the tree and smoothing out the large dirt mound that deters parking from one side of the tree. However, Williamson accepts the fact that the tree will not always be there and maintain its resilience.
“We have to realize that someday it’s going to die; something will happen to it, or it’ll die a slow death with disease or something. I hope that doesn’t happen while I’m here, but you don’t know. It’s kind of like pets: you have pets, and you love them, but pets don’t live as long as we do,” Williamson said, “and you know that eventually, you get a puppy, he lives to be 10 or 15 years old, he’s going to be an old dog, so he’s not going to make it, and you just have to realize that. I would hope that this tree would outlive all of us.”
By Atreyo Ghosh