HAWKINSVILLE -- The tree stands tall on a street named Broad, its limbs draped in Spanish moss and history.
Berta Mae Wright never really noticed it when her family moved into the red-brick house with a redwood in the front yard more than 50 years ago.
But she and her husband, the late Eschol Wright, became caretakers and unofficial historians of what is believed to be one of the oldest and largest redwood trees east of the Mississippi River.
The sequoia certainly has brought a measure of notoriety. People have stopped to take photographs. Newspaper reporters have sat in her den and heard stories of how the redwood has survived in the land of magnolias, dogwoods, oaks and pine trees. In 1984, a professor from the Redwood Institute at the University of California at Santa Cruz came to do research on the tree.
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Berta Mae turned 90 on Jan. 8, a birthday she shares with Elvis Presley. Her husband died in 2010, and they had discussed leaving the tree to the city in their wills.
“We wanted to make sure the tree was protected,’’ she said. “We talked about deeding it over. Now, at my age, I wanted it done.”
Berta Mae still lives in the house. About a dozen folks gathered in her yard Jan. 17 for a ceremony. In a few weeks, a plaque will be placed near the tree, and a small fence will be built around it.
The city of Hawkinsville, where the local high school mascot is the Red Devils, now has a redwood in its protective custody.
Her son, Matthew Wright, said his father got the idea for donating the redwood from the famous oak “Tree That Owns Itself” at the corner of Dearing and South Finley streets in Athens.
“The redwood is part of our family,” Matthew said. “My mother wanted it to be taken care of for eternity.”
Cliff Paulk is a forester in Bleckley County who grew up in Hawkinsville and has had a lifelong interest in the tree. He recently measured the redwood at 85 feet tall, with a 42-foot canopy, and 12 feet, 4 inches in circumference. He said while the tree’s height has remained about the same, the growth of its circumference unofficially makes it larger than a similar-sized redwood in Culloden.
David Brown, chief of the Georgia Forestry Commission office for Bleckley and Pulaski counties, said the redwood is listed among the state’s “champion trees.” He expects to have an official measurement in the next few months.
But it is just a baby compared to the jolly red giants of California that can reach heights of 350 feet and live for centuries.
The Hawkinsville tree will celebrate a significant birthday next year when it turns 125. It was planted in 1890 by Virgil Homer Walker, one of the town’s early settlers. His wife, Lea Watson Walker, wrote letters to several Western states and territories, requesting native trees to plant on their property. Two California coast redwood seedlings arrived and were planted. Just one survived.
The two-story Walker house burned, and Rod Porter, a high school history teacher, built the brick house in the 1950s. After his wife died, he stuck a “For Sale” sign next to a cedar tree in the front yard in 1961.
Eschol Wright farmed and ran a seed business. Berta Mae wanted to move to town before Matthew started school.
“I didn’t want to build a house,” she said. “I didn’t want to have a choose a paint color or pick out light fixtures. I wanted one ready to move in. I just like the looks of this house. I didn’t pay attention to the yard. Mr. Porter wanted a quick sale, and I can’t remember if he even told us about the redwood tree.”
At the time, Broad Street was just two lanes, and the signature tree on their property was a huge oak at the corner of the house. It was cut down after it was damaged in an ice storm in the 1960s.
Over the years, three pecan trees also had to be cut down.
Paulk said his high school agriculture teacher, W.E. Richards, would take classes on field trips to study trees. He once told them the tree was the largest redwood on the East Coast. Paulk later went to a nursing home to interview the late Sam Way Jr., who filled him in on the tree’s rich history.
If the Wrights needed any validation the redwood was unique, they got it when Ernest Ball from the University of California at Santa Cruz paid a visit 40 years ago. He was studying the ability of redwoods to survive in a climate with extreme heat during the summer and sub-freezing temperatures during the winter months. (The California redwoods thrive in a more moderate habitat.)
The professor cut several 1-inch squares of the reddish-brown bark and took them with him in a cooler. He flew from Hawkinsville to Abbeville, S.C., to study several redwoods growing there. He later contacted the Wrights and told them he was disappointed the bark samples he had taken in Hawkinsville did not survive the trip back to California.
Berta Mae’s property is surrounded by businesses on busy Broad Street. Next door is Way Brothers, once of the area’s oldest automobile dealerships.
And speaking of cars, in California some sequoias are so huge you can drive through them.
In Hawkinsville, most folks drive right past without ever noticing the unique tree that stands guard a few feet from the road.
“I feel like I’ve become an authority on it,” Berta Mae said. “I am proud of it and always have been. I have been asked if I planted it, and I tell them I’m not that old.”
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.