published Thursday, October 25th, 2012

Hamilton County courthouse misses stalwart tree (with video)

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger stands in front of the Osage orange tree that formerly stood on the courthouse lawn until last month.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger stands in front of the Osage orange tree that formerly stood on the courthouse lawn until last month.
Photo by Patrick Smith.
Hamilton County still forming plan for Osage orange tree
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said officials are still trying to form a plan for how they'll repurpose the wood from the historic Osage orange tree that fell on the courthouse lawn in September.

As the spectacle of autumn colors continues to unfold across Hamilton County, one tree is missing.

There will be no color this year — or leaves, for that matter — from the old Osage orange tree resting in a secluded area of Enterprise South Nature Park.

The tree, once considered the jewel of the Hamilton County Courthouse lawn, now lies dismembered as it waits for county officials to decide its fate.

The much-beloved Osage orange, which thousands of couples had been married under, toppled without warning one drizzly morning in September. Since then, officials have been trying to figure out the best way to honor its long life.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and several members of his staff paid the old tree a visit on Wednesday and discussed several options.

The Osage orange wood, which is prized by woodworkers, could be used for artifacts like gavels, benches or a podium. Or a lottery could be held for the public to get the wood. Or both.

Coppinger said he's trying not to raise any hopes until a final decision is made.

"The phone has rang more about this tree than it has about some of the more controversial issues we've experienced over the last year," he said. "We're trying to be sensitive with what everyone would like to see."

County officials have been cautious not to reveal the exact location of the tree, fearing people would try to come cut off pieces of it. Removing the tree cost over $9,000, county officials have reported.

Chattanooga city forester Gene Hyde has visited the tree since it was transported, and carefully counted the rings on one large, low-hanging branch. He counted over 150 of them.

"You can figure it was probably between 150 to 175 years old," he said. "That's definitely one of the older trees in the county."

Hyde said he did not detect a large amount of decay in the tree, explaining that Osage oranges are typically good at walling off any wounds inflicted to them.

"The tree just outgrew itself," said head of Hamilton County Human Services Don Allen as he examined some knotty branches.

"It just go tired and laid down," Coppinger added.

Sometime later this fall, the county will be partnering with the Orange Grove Center — which draws its name from the Osage oranges on its property -- to transplant one of the trees to the county.

"Maybe 150 years from now people can marvel at that tree," said Hyde. "Maybe in 2162 they'll be amazed."

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