“A magnificent oak was once a little nut that held its ground,” Henry David Thoreau once said. The bur oak tree (Quercus macrocarpa) which stands behind the Eaton Rapids Post Office is a prime example of an oak tree standing its ground. Bur oaks commonly live two to three hundred years, some up to 400 years.
The tree is estimated to be over 200 years old. It was recognized as a “bicentennial tree” in 1995 by the International Society of Arboriculture. So, it was living and growing in Eaton Rapids before there was an Eaton Rapids. Eaton Rapids was founded in 1835. The post office was built in 1937, and there was a hotel at that location up until 1920.
Forester Bill Botti of Eaton Rapids took a look at the tree recently. Botti served as the executive director of the Michigan Forestry Association. He is also a “certified measurer,” for the Michigan Big Tree project, a project creating a database of Michigan’s living landmarks which is sponsored by the Michigan Botanical Club.
Botti measured the tree and determined that it stands 82 feet tall, with a girth of 55.8 inches, and the crown at its widest is about 77 feet. Using the Big Tree point system, the bur oak registered 152 points, which is low, as far as the big trees go, Botti explained. The largest bur oak in Michigan currently is one in Berrien County, which stands 91.3 feet tall, 322 inches in girth, and has a 127-foot crown, and racks up 445 points.
“Bur Oaks get to be big and live a long time, even with a lot of dead limbs and even when it’s not in good health,” said Botti. “I’ve seen bur oaks that are so hollow that several people can stand inside it-but it continues to live and grow.”
This one is in fair condition, even with so many dead branches, Botti said. “But nobody lives forever,” he pointed out.
But there is more to this old tree’s story. It officially had a date with a chainsaw in 1994. The post office wanted to expand its parking lot, and the only way to do so was to remove the tree, which would provide an additional 10 parking spaces at a cost of $50,000. A retaining wall would also be added at the shoreline, according to then-postmaster Jack Bohne.
The “Save the Bur Oak Committee” was organized, and petitions circulated. Letters were written to the postal service and to members of Congress to beg for clemency for the tree. The local Kiwanis group, led by Robert Dickins, urged the post office for the preservation of the tree. A Lansing attorney, contacted by the Sierra Club, offered his expertise for free and sought an injunction to prevent the cutting down of the tree.
In 1995 the tree was designated as the Earle Miller tree in honor of the former assistant postmaster who was a key advocate in saving the tree. Miller’s father served as postmaster from 1933 to 1953.
“Anything that has struggled and survived 250 years should be allowed to live out its natural life without being sacrificed,” Miller said. Miller played around the tree as a young boy and served as assistant postmaster from 1942 to 1966.
Due to public outcry, the bur oak was spared the ax and still stands on the banks of the Grand River. Instead of taking the tree down, the outside collection boxes were relocated, and parking spaces were rearranged, which added 2-3 more parking spaces, and the one-way traffic flow was reversed.