Six generations of Williamsons have watched the big oak grow even bigger on their Boone County land.
Standing alone, it clearly likes its spot a few hundred yards from the Missouri River. Since sprouting from a tiny acorn some time in the mid-1600s, the tree has reached gargantuan size, the biggest bur oak in all of Missouri.
Current landowner John Sam Williamson, 71, said he’ll be watching with fingers crossed as next spring arrives and the big tree puts out new leaves — hopefully surviving a devastating lightning strike that set its core afire on Oct. 23.
“We certainly don’t know yet if it will,” said Williamson, several days after Boone County firefighters quenched the burning tree. “It’s been struck before, but this was a pretty serious strike.
“It didn’t lose its canopy, and the limbs above the strike weren’t blown off. I don’t think there’s anything we can do now but wait for spring and see what happens.”
Photos showing hole where lightning entered tree sparks community tribute
Word of the lightning strike, and photos showing a gaping hole where the lightning entered and burned a hollow 10-foot section inside the trunk, prompted an outpouring of tributes to perhaps the most famous tree in Missouri.
Standing 90 feet high with a canopy 130 feet wide, it’s the largest bur oak in Missouri and is tied with a tree in Kentucky as the biggest bur oak in the country.
Its trunk is so huge takes four grown men to reach around its 24-foot circumference.
Since the lightning strike, hundreds have arrived in cars, on foot and by bicycle to see and touch and experience the magnificent oak, located in McBaine village, southwest of Columbia.
Well-wishers posted “Get Well Soon” notes on the tree’s massive trunk and left bouquets of flowers. Someone deposited a children’s book at its base, telling the story of how a tree gave everything it could to help a little boy.
Barry Underwood and Latricia Sharp rode bikes on the nearby Katy Trail just to see the big tree again.
Sharp snapped a photo of Underwood giving the tree a huge, get-well hug.
“I’ve been riding the Katy for 10 years and every time I stop at the big tree, meditate and soak in its energy,” Underwood said. “When I heard about the lightning strike, I knew I had to go back and give it some love.”
Underwood is optimistic the tree will survive.
“I think it will,” he said. “A lot of trees live a long time without their centers.”
Sharp said the bike visit with Underwood was her second time seeing the big tree.
“It is a humbling experience to see in person the magnificence of a tree that still stands, having endured over 300 years of hardships from floods to droughts to lightning strikes,” Sharp said. “This tree is drawing people together in a time where we are experiencing isolation due to this pandemic.”
Pamela Carey stopped at the tree to take pictures after fire crews extinguished the internal blaze.
One of her photos shows the hole in the trunk, where lightning blew a chunk of the tree far into a nearby field.
She remembers her mother scattering the ashes of a deceased friend on the ground beneath the oak’s outstretched limbs.
“The tree was a special destination for weekend road trips along the countryside when any friends in our little circle ever had stress they needed to talk about and vent,” Carey said. “My sister has passed away and that tree represents so much. We would just sit there and talk. I’m sure a lot of other people feel the same way.”
Will Missouri’s ‘big tree’ survive?
Williamson, the landowner where the tree grows, said the local electric co-op several years ago affixed lightning rods to the tree, connected to copper cables tied to a grounding rod buried in the soil.
That might have protected it from the latest strike, had thieves not stolen the copper cables.
Williamson said decades ago a small core sample was taken from the tree to estimate its age.
“They didn’t have a corer long enough to reach all the way to the center, so they counted the rings in the core sample and estimated the rest,” he said. “It was just a small sprout in 1650. There’s a lot of history it has witnessed.”
He said the tree was growing strong long before his family first acquired the land in 1835. Even if the tree dies, Williamson has ensured its genetics will survive.
Williamson said he has planted acorns from the tree, and also has a clone of the tree growing in his yard. He said a University of Missouri forestry professor sprouted an acorn, then grafted a twig from the big tree onto it.
“It’s 30 feet tall now and has the same genetic material as the big tree,” Williamson said. “That was 15 years ago. It’s growing greatly.”
A St. Louis arborist with an interest in the tree will take a look at the lightning damage, but Williamson said next spring’s growing season will tell the story of how badly the tree was damaged.
Williamson hopes the lightning strike won’t be the tree’s demise.
“Trees have a way — like people’s skin — of healing up after an injury,” he said. “It already has quite a few scars where it has been struck before. It’s been a part of our family for a long time. We sure respect that tree.”