Every Root an Anchor: Wisconsin's Famous and Historic Trees

By R. Bruce Allison

Paperback: $21.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-370-1

128 pages, 92 b/w photos, 8.5 x 11"


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In "Every Root an Anchor," writer and arborist R. Bruce Allison celebrates Wisconsin's most significant, unusual, and historic trees. More than one hundred tales introduce us to trees across the state, some remarkable for their size or age, others for their intriguing histories. From magnificent elms to beloved pines to Frank Lloyd Wright's oaks, these trees are woven into our history, contributing to our sense of place. They are anchors for time-honored customs, manifestations of our ideals, and reminders of our lives' most significant events.

For this updated edition, Allison revisits the trees' histories and tells us which of these unique landmarks are still standing. He sets forth an environmental message as well, reminding us to recognize our connectedness to trees and to manage our tree resources wisely. As early Wisconsin conservationist Increase Lapham said, "Tree histories increase our love of home and improve our hearts. They deserve to be told and remembered."

To receive a review copy or press release, to schedule an author event, or for more information contact the WHS Press Marketing Department: whspress@wisconsinhistory.org.

R. Bruce Allison has been a professional arborist in Madison, Wisconsin, since 1974. He has earned degrees from Brown University and from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He served as president of the Wisconsin Arborist Association and as chairman of the Dane County Tree Board and the Wisconsin Urban Forestry Council. He is the author of several books, including the children's book "If Trees Could Talk: Stories About Wisconsin Trees," and many articles dealing with trees and nature.

Interview with R. Bruce Allison

Wisconsin Historical Society Press: What were some of the most surprising or interesting things you learned from researching, writing, and updating "Every Root an Anchor?"

I discovered that my interest and affinity for trees was universally shared by Wisconsinites. When I asked people from all walks of life for their tree stories, they came forward revealing their interest in and attraction to trees.

WHS Press: In what ways has writing "Every Root an Anchor" been a personal experience? How do you feel connected to this book?

In looking back on it, I really started writing "Every Root an Anchor" my first day on the job as an arborist. That's when my clients began telling me their tree stories, sharing with me their experiences and feelings about their special trees. Stepping into the landscaped yards of my customers has given me special insights into the personal relationship people develop with their plants. I was fascinated by the nature of that relationship and began researching historical tree stories discovering that all generations shared those special connections to trees. I was fortunate to find Walter Scott, who while the assistant to the Secretary to the Department of Conservation had gathered many Wisconsin tree stories. Another important influence and valued friend was Professor Robert Gard. He had written books on Wisconsin history and folklore and encouraged me to pursue my research on Wisconsin tree histories.

WHS Press: How do you think readers will connect to your book? Why is this book important for Wisconsin?

Wisconsinites have already connected to "Every Root an Anchor." After all, these stories came from them. These really are their stories, which came to me via telephone calls, newspaper clippings, personal letters, magazine articles, and local historical societies. My role was to organize, interpret and bring these stories to life in a printed form. Readers, I believe, will enjoy and relate to these stories, learning more about their own community and our state's history in the process.

WHS Press: Many of the tree stories are interwoven with human stories and human history. Do you have a similar connection or memory with any trees mentioned or not mentioned in the book?

All of these stories have some connection to human interests and endeavors. Many are connected to important national events and personalities. I was deeply moved by the civil war stories, by the tragedy and grief of the father who planted the sycamore as a memorial to his fallen soldier son, and also by the compassion and bravery of Cordelia Harvey (Camp Randall Harvey Oak), who fought the military bureaucracy to allow injured Wisconsin soldiers to recover at home.

WHS Press: What was the most challenging part of writing and/or updating "Every Root an Anchor?"

Researching and ferreting out facts about long gone trees and their associated stories is challenging. It requires detective work and persistence. It helped that I had a sense of passion and purpose in my work inspired in part by the enthusiasm I witnessed in others such as Walter Scott and Robert Gard.

WHS Press: When you first wrote this book in 1982, you published it yourself. What were some factors in your decision to work with the WHS Press this time around?

"Every Root an Anchor" is the culmination of a two-decade long gathering and updating of Wisconsin tree histories. It was my good fortune that the Wisconsin Historical Society Press decided to publish my book. I was researching an old painting of the Peck Bur Oak in the Historical Society archives when I was invited to submit my manuscript to the Wisconsin Historical Society Press acquisition editor. Of course I said yes when the Wisconsin Historical Society Press offered the opportunity to bring my work to a wider audience. They have done so in a remarkably beautiful form.

WHS Press: What is the underlying message of "Every Root an Anchor?"

Trees and people need each other; we are companions in life and have co-evolved. As John Muir said, "We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men."

2005 Midwest Independent Publishers Association Midwest Book Awards
First Place in the Nature Category
Merit Award in the Gardening Category

Mike Dombeck, Chief Emeritus of the U.S. Forest Service and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and UW system Fellow for Global Conservation

"'Every Root an Anchor: Wisconsin's Famous and Historic Trees' is a unique blend of nature, folklore, and culture, with this state's most significant and historic trees as the key characters. This easy to read set of fascinating tales and photographs will capture your interest and engender a renewed appreciation for the value of trees. It is a must read for those who love trees and the outdoors or simply like good stories."

Shelley Ryan, Master Gardener and hos of Wisconsin Public Television's "The Wisconsin Gardener"
"One of my very first childhood poems was an ode to a tree. After reading Allison's book I predict many more odes to Wisconsin trees. Not only a history of Wisconsin's famous trees, Allison's book is also a wonderful travel guide highlighting special trees and special places in every corner of the state. This book was written for all of us who have ever appreciated the beauty, shade and memories that trees provide."

Edward R. Hasselkus, professor emeritus of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
"My roots are in Wisconsin and in Wisconsin's trees. Throughout my 33 year tenure on the UW-Madison faculty, my students and I have collected many of the stories associated with Wisconsin's champion and historic trees. Thanks to former student R. Bruce Allison for preserving this rich heritage in 'Every Root an Anchor.'"

Ben Logan, author of "The Land Remembers"
"What a marvelous gift Bruce Allison gives us in 'Every Root an Anchor'. His storytelling approach entertains even as he is educating. He reminds us that trees represent more than just the flow of history. Trees also become characters in the lives of people. We interact with them just as we do with human characters, be it a hanging tree, a treaty-signing tree, or my own Big Maple. Included here is a legend of the Black Hawk Tree. An icon of my childhood, it stood in the middle of a street in Prairie du Chien, auto traffic threading past on either side. Did Black Hawk really hide in the tree? That is less important than the fact that the story told is the sad ending of a dying people. Allison knows that trees can speak, and he translates for them and helps them tell their stories." 

Nina Leopold Bradley, founder and director of the Aldo Leopold Foundation
"'Every Root an Anchor' is a book rich in history. It exposes the long history of humans interacting with nature. A sense of history should be the most precious gift of science and art. A single tree, if read closely, can become the biography of a family, an area, or a generation of people. For all of its simplicity, a tree can reveal a fundamental message, a world of nuance and significance. Aldo Leopold expressed his feeling and understanding in planting a tree: 'Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree — and there will be one.'"

Jeffrey Meyer, author of "America's Famous and Historic Trees" and "The Tree Book"
"This is an important book for Trees! Great stories! I hope that every state has one some day."

This book feature by Chris Martell appeared in the "Wisconsin State Journal" on Saturday, April 16, 2005

Top Trees: Madison's Oldest Celebrities Have Their Stories Told

Most passersby probably don't pay much attention to the big oak tree in a field outside a low-slung commercial building in Middleton—even though it's almost perfectly shaped and in rugged good health at age 200.

But it triggers a sense of deja vu.

That's because the "Pleasant Company Oak" is the familiar symbol of the American Girl dolls and books. And as such, it's the Madison area's only internationally known tree.

Pleasant Rowland's office window at the company she founded in 1986 had a view of the tree. And to make sure it stayed healthy, she called on Madison arborist Bruce Allison.

Allison has become well-acquainted with many of Wisconsin's great trees since he came to graduate school at UW-Madison in 1974. Two books he authored on the subject are being published this spring.

For more than 20 years, he's been taking inventory of Wisconsin's biggest, most ancient and most peculiar trees, and telling the stories of the human history they silently witnessed.

"Wisconsin's Champion Trees" is primarily intended for "tree hunters," folks who criss-cross the state to feel, measure and have their picture taken with prize specimens.

Tree hunters are always on the lookout for undiscovered tree superstars, and Allison's book explains how to join the hunt by searching woods, pastures and ordinary back yards for champion trees. After measuring them, they can be nominated for the Department of Natural Resources Champion Tree Program.

"The program to collect stories of Wisconsin's trees goes back to 1941, when letters were sent to historical societies all over the state and as much information as possible was gathered," Allison said. "I'm carrying on the tradition and updating the tree stories. Wisconsin is remarkably far ahead of other states in how it handles its tree resources. This state has gotten a lot of federal money to spend on its urban tree program. Compared to duck and deer hunters, tree hunters can feel reasonably confident that their prey will be there when they arrive."

But until the development of the Global Positioning System was developed, finding a venerable tree was not always a sure thing.

Many big trees that were identified in the past got lost when street names were changed or maps re-drawn. Many disappeared without notice, as victims of disease, lightning, storms or the chain saw.

Oaks, once the dominant species in the Madison area and used by early surveyors to mark the land, are also being lost to pollution and disease. Limestone used in roads increases the pH content of the soil, which disturbs oak trees; others were lost to oak wilt.

Allison's other book, "Every Root an Anchor: Wisconsin's Famous and Historic Trees," is an armchair read for those who love magnificent trees, but don't necessarily feel compelled to hunt them and become personally acquainted. The book is a collection of tree mini-profiles that tell stories of how the trees were part of the humans who lived among them.

We learn, for instance, that Frank Lloyd Wright once said he was more likely to mourn the loss of a tree than a human. He built the Tea Circle at Taliesin in Spring Green around two old oaks. Shortly after he died at his winter home in Arizona, a bolt of lightning destroyed the larger of the oaks in Spring Green, and the smaller, no longer in its shadow, grew to a circumference of more than 100 feet.

And in Madison, under a giant black locust on Observatory Drive, naturalist John Muir had his first botany lesson. Trees that appear to have been twisted as saplings are also seen in the book; their branches pointed in certain directions to serve as trail markers.

"We can't say for certain who bent the trees, or why they did it," Allison said. "But it's certainly no coincidence when you see a limb that was bent to point toward a river or some other landmark. Trees were the first street signs."

Others were growing before the earliest French explorers arrived.

Mutant trees, hanging trees, trees where Native Americans held councils or Civil War soldiers were recruited are all part of Wisconsin's arboreal heritage. Some described in Allison's book are long gone, but many are still standing, either on their own or with the help of tie rods.

Wisconsin's trees (the oldest is a 450-year-old bur oak in Dousman; there's a 400-year-old white oak in Fitchburg and a 266-year-old red oak in Madison) are, chronologically speaking, saplings compared to some of the world's trees.

The oldest tree on Earth is the Methusala Tree, a bristlecone pine in California's Sierra Mountains, which has been carbon dated at 4,500 years old. The giant redwoods on the Pacific Coast are about 2,000 years old, and the tallest is 390 feet.

Still, Wisconsin has an impressive collection of trees, and many of the finest examples of their species can be found nearby.

* Spring Tavern Black Walnut, 3706 Nakoma Road, on Madison's West Side. The tree still stands behind the old stagecoach inn, even though the contents of Native American burial mounds found on the property (including skeletons in sitting position, pots, stones, axes and knives) were lost when the first Capitol, which then housed the Wisconsin Historical Society, burned in 1904.

* Pine Street Oak, 602 Pine St., on Madison's South Side. One of the oldest trees in Madison stands in a corner lot in the old Wingra Village neighborhood, which has Wingra Creek as one of its boundaries.

* President's Tree, near the old Observatory Director's Residence, 1225 Observatory Drive. This 250-year-old bur oak is known as the President's Tree because a succession of university presidents also lived in the home. Legend has it that during the Civil War, soldiers stationed at Camp Randall used the tree for gunnery practice, and a gaping hole in the trunk was offered as evidence. The tree was bolted together with steel rods and seems to be in good health.

* Bascom Hill Elms. In 2004, 34 mature elm trees remained on campus, many of them dating back to the campus's earliest days in the 1850s, and survivors of Dutch elm disease that ravaged the states elms from the mid-1950s into the 1970s. Sixteen of the elms line the two sidewalks on Bascom Hill.

* Geotropic Goff Larch, 620 Babcock Drive, at the former home of the agriculture deans. The genetically mutant larch tree, a European conifer, is named for horticulture professor Emmett Goff. It was brought from Door County in 1899. Its branches bend down instead of up, and many attempts to get cuttings from the larch to grow in the same way as the parent tree have failed.

* Edgewood Oaks, Edgewood Drive. In a 1976 survey there were more than 400 oaks older than 200 within an eight-mile radius of the Capitol. Seven of them were on the Edgewood campus on the shore of Lake Wingra, which was an encampment for generations of Winnebagos. Hickory pine and silver maples are also among the trees in the Edgewood forest.

* The Mount Vernon Forest of Fame, Dane County. Located near Highway 92, the first trees were planted here for Arbor Day in 1916. The trees came from the homes of former presidents, including George Washington (who lived at Mount Vernon) and Abraham Lincoln, and other famous people, many of them from Wisconsin.

* Trading Post Oak, 3119 Waconia Lane, Middleton. The red oak marks on the northwest shore of Lake Mendota marks a spot where an early trading post once stood, and where Col. Henry Dodge gathered 5,000 Winnebago Indians in 1832 to ask them to keep the peace during the Black Hawk Rebellion. A hunting lodge on the site still stands.

This book feature by Kathryn A. Kahler appeared in the February 2006 issue of "Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine"

There is a story in every tree, and thanks to Madison arborist R. Bruce Allison, the tales behind some of Wisconsin's historic and otherwise remarkable trees have been transformed from memories to written word, preserving them for the next generations of tree-lovers. His compilation of accounts includes stories of magnificent elms that graced city streets across the state until they fell to Dutch elm disease in the 1950s and '60s. Another chapter tells the stories of trees like the Coffin Tree of Rusk County, found to hold the mummified remains of a buckskin-clad man in a coonskin hat, or the Trading Post Oak that stood witness to negotiations between Colonel Henry Dodge and the Winnebago Indians on the shore of Lake Mendota in 1832.

Other accounts document the utility of trees as early signposts, navigation aids and surveyor's markers. Large trees were carved with words or symbols, and young trees were bent into abnormal shapes to designate property lines or to mark a trail. There were trees — like the Hanerville Oak and Prairie du Chien's Black Hawk Tree — whose significance was so revered that roads were detoured around them to save them from cutting.

Some of the featured trees still stand, but many have succumbed to the saw or forces of nature, like the General MacArthur White Pine that once towered 140 feet above the Nicolet National Forest in Forest County. It stood for an estimated 400 years only to be struck by lightning and burn to the ground in 2003.

Allison's book is well illustrated with 89 historical photos that help the reader grasp the enormity of these massive trees. The book concludes with "Trees in Literature, Art and Folklore" and "Arborphiles," a chapter on some of Wisconsin's most famous "Lovers of Trees." "Rudy Lange: Delavan Tree Surgeon," is an especially colorful account of a naturalist who lived a life of adventure and whose "cremated remains were incorporated in the soil at the base of his favorite tree, an Adams flowering crabapple."

This book feature by Jennifer Garrett appeared in the May 2005 issue of "Madison Magazine"

There's Something About Trees: Tending trees for a lifetime inspires an arborist to collect and share stories of just how much they inhabit not just our yards, but our lives

Spend a few minutes with R. Bruce Allison and suddenly, you find yourself recalling the cluster of three maples, in whose shade you were to marry had the rain not forced you indoors. You again lament the elm in your front yard, the one that survived disease but succumbed to a freak lightening strike in a surreal late-summer storm. You remember your first apartment in California, the one with the orange tree in the courtyard outside your window.

Bruce Allison gets you thinking about your trees. No surprises there — Allison is a professional consulting arborist who makes a living caring for the birches, poplars and pines around town.

"I really do think everybody has their tree story," he says.

And he has heard a lot of them in his 31 years running Allison Tree Care. He hears about the first oaks people climbed, the cherry trees planted when children were born, and the silver maples that were uprooted in a tornado. Those stories, he says, are as critical to his business as the trees themselves.

"People hire arborists like myself because of their appreciation of the value of trees, both an economic value but also a personal value," he says. "People have a great affinity for trees and want to be with trees. It is this sense of tree appreciation that really is the motivation for people to keep me in business. Every day, in contact with clients, I am always impressed at how people absolutely value and love their trees."

Nancy Heiden clearly loves the American Elm shading the side yard of her Shorewood Hills home. She has been fighting for 40 years, 30 of them with Allison, to protect the tree from Dutch elm disease, which all but destroyed the elm population in North America. So far, so good. "It's expensive to continue to invest in the care, but I think it's worth it. Why do I want that tree? It's really beautiful. It belongs there," Heiden says. "It pretty much roots the Heidens to the property."

Heiden is hardly alone. Allison believes most people feel the same way about the trees in their lives. That is, in part, what compelled him to collect over 100 tree stories for Every Root an Anchor: Wisconsin's Famous and Historic Trees ($21.95, Wisconsin Historical Society Press). The newly published book features trees of all sizes and species from every corner of Wisconsin. Some stories describe neighborhood landmark trees. Others document trees significant for their size or shape. Some are simply fascinating little tales that Allison gathered from county historical societies and residents across the state.

Of all his efforts, Allison thinks cultivating appreciation for nature's largest and oldest creatures is among the most important things he does. Now when Allison is not out trying to save an elm, attending a ceremony in honor of old oaks lost during construction, or providing any of his myriad tree services, he is at work writing a children's edition of his book.

This latest effort he considers a natural extension of his work. After all, connecting lifetime to lifetime is something trees do especially well. "They are really our companions in life," he says, "and they outlive us, so they tend to bind one generation to the next."