Cocke County lost a priceless bit of history recently when a tree fell over near the golf course.
The massive black oak tree had stood across from Smoky Mountain Country Club for an estimated 400-500 years, according to published studies from the 1980s.
In the late 1970s, lightning struck the tree, damaging it severely and over the past 40 years its condition gradually worsened.
Then early one recent Friday morning, during that period of heavy rains and high winds, the venerable oak crashed to the ground. Even then, it didn’t all fall at once. Around 6:00 a.m., a portion fell across the driveway of the Maxwell Mullen residence and a few hours later the remainder of the tree collapsed onto the road, blocking traffic for several hours.
Mullen said that damage and disease had caused the tree to become hollow and heavy water collected inside the trunk, leading to the eventual toppling of the tree.
Back in the days when it was hale and hearty, the tree boasted a wing spread of approximately 120-125 feet. At its widest point, the tree’s circumference was 25-26 feet, and its diameter measured nine feet.
Over the years various university professors and students visited the tree to conduct studies.
It’s times like this when I wish trees could talk, for this old oak certainly could have told us many fascinating stories.
It would have been a fully grown tree in the late 1700s, a quarter century before Tennessee entered the Union in 1796 and Cocke County was established in 1797. No doubt many a Native American passed under its branches. After all, the tree stood fairly close to the Pigeon River, then a pristine body of water. Hunters of arrowheads and other such relics have great luck prowling the nearby river bottoms.
The earliest pioneers, hunters and trappers, along with Revolutionary war veterans seeking new livelihoods in this new area, could have told us where the tree stood.
We know that it was an original “corner” of the “Virginia John” Wood property, which encompassed a huge acreage. The old log Wood home stood just a short distance away, near today’s club house. Here Virginia John (so called to distinguish him from other John Woods) and his first wife, Fanny, reared their eight sons, and as death began to claim family members, the family cemetery was established near today’s I-40.
After Fanny’s death, John married Elizabeth Sisk, a spinster and daughter of Revolutionary War veteran Bartlett Sisk. John and Elizabeth had no children of their own. She, too, is buried in the family cemetery.
When Civil War cursed America, the tree witnessed troops passing through the area. It watched as many of the community’s young men eagerly enlisted in the Confederate army as part of Captain Edwin Allen’s company. Nearly all of the boys and young men, some in their teens, came from area farms and many were related, if not by blood, then by marriage.
The tree would have heard the sobs of heartbroken fathers, mothers, wives, children, and siblings as word of the deaths of their beloved soldiers trickled back home.
It would have watched with horror as troops did their best to raid the Wood home during the war. An account of this event can be found in Over the Misty Blue Hills on page 148.
During the Civil War, this house (Virginia John’s home) was occupied by Gipson, the third son of John Wood, who had inherited this property for taking care of his aged father. [Two of Gipson’s sons, James and Toliver Wood were away at war, serving with the Confederate army.]
Sometime during the Civil War, a band of roving Union soldiers came to this home and attempted to rob the family, which consisted of five daughters: Phoebe, Elizabeth, Nancy, Fanny, and Delaney, together with the “baby boy” John B., and their grandfather, “Virginia John”...The girls protested and endeavored to protect their home against the robbers. Phoebe used an ax, Elizabeth held the door, and Nancy wielded a pitchfork. The other two girls comforted the aged man and the little boy. In this scramble, one soldier got his head fastened in the smokehouse door, where the hams and other meat hung. Finally, the soldiers agreed to leave the smokehouse alone if the girls would release the man. As soon as the soldiers left, the girls decided to cut a ham and enjoy it themselves, lest the men return in the night and carry the meat off. On the ground, they found two buttons from the soldiers’ coats, cherished possessions of the family to this day.
As the years passed and the tree aged, the old oak perhaps was startled by the sounds of newfangled motors and the increased traffic of rattling Model T’s. Imagine its surprise when the first airplane flew overhead.
In the 1880s, the portion of the Wood farm where the tree stood was sold to William Sisk, who, in 1888, sold the property to Willis Gray. Many of you will remember several of Willis’s grandchildren, including twins Aileen Hightower and Arlene Gray and their sister, Nannie (Gray) Hale and their siblings. Willis Gray sold the lot to his son Robert L. Gray (father of the above-named sisters), who owned the property for over 40 years before selling it to L.D. Barrick. In 1964, Mr. Barrick sold the property to Dr. A.M. Mullen, a Newport dentist, and his wife Alice, parents of the present owner Maxwell Mullen.