Liberty Tree felled by storm

The tree once designated as a Liberty Tree by the Missouri Department of Conservation fell victim to high winds recently. Although its trunk was hollow the branches were full of this year’s new leaves.

The tree once designated as a Liberty Tree by the Missouri Department of Conservation fell victim to high winds recently. Although its trunk was hollow the branches were full of this year’s new leaves. Photo by Julie Smith.

One casualty of the severe storms earlier this month was a 21⁄2-century-old tree that was designated as a “Liberty Tree” during the 1976 bicentennial celebration.

“My kids just enjoyed that tree an awful lot,” said Jean Wankum, whose family owned the land where Scholastic Inc. is now located on East McCarty Street.

The white oak tree technically was on city right-of-way, but the Wankums and their seven children treated it as their own.

Wankum said her eldest, Janice Orr, would sit on the other side of the wide tree, hiding from her siblings and parents to read books.

The children often played on the sack swing they had hung on the tree, she said. “I was up in the house canning. I didn’t get to play,” Wankum said.

In 1976, the state was seeking trees to designate as “Liberty Trees” — a tree that was more than two centuries old. On a whim, she nominated the oak, which she estimated to be 210 years old at the time. To her surprise, state officials selected it.

The original Liberty Tree was a famous Elm Tree in Boston that was associated with the American Revolution. A decade before the war, colonists in Boston staged the first act of defiance at the tree, which became a rallying point for the growing resistance to Britain’s rule over the colonies.

The Wankum family sold the three acres of property to Scholastic, which expanded its operations in 1982 to the other side of East McCarty Street.

That year, the tree was the background setting when Mayor George Hartsfield and local Chamber of Commerce officials broke ground for the new Scholastic facility. Now, Scholastic recognizes the tree, and the ground-breaking event, with a certificate, plaque and photos on a wall inside the company.

“We were quite sad to see such a symbol of the timeline of our country go down,” said Faye Edwards, Scholastic’s general manger. The tree fell as the company celebrates its 45th anniversary.

She said Scholastic intends to keep some slices of the tree, possibly to make plaques, and to plant another tree in its place to carry on the tradition.

“We’ll plant another tree, and I’m sure that it will be standing 200 years from now, when our country is still going strong,” she said.

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