By Russell Neyman.
The Grand Dame of the long-vanished town of Colby, Washington, put on her best coat the other day, bringing smiles to the neighborhood. She looked terrific! And while it is — ahem — not altogether proper etiquette to discuss a woman’s age, she appears to be about 135.
The lady is a large, beautiful, black oak, brought to this place by the earliest settlers.
Her age has always been the topic of conversation — we have seen photographs of her from the 1880’s — but we thought it might be time to bring in an expert to look her over and assess her condition. Jim Trainer, who is widely acknowledged to be one of Washington’s leading authorities on thees, paid her a visit and gave her a clean bill of health. He confirmed that the tree is a black oak, which is not indigenous to the Pacific Northwest.
The large, expansive tree sits within feet of the water’s edge below the houses along Yukon Harbor Drive and can be seen from the Southernmost bend of Cole Loop. The town of Colby (1880-1967) and a small sawmill once occupied the flat area below the tree, which lived on the small slope behind the Grant & Sons Store. Trainer carefully measured the tree and ascertained it to be 50 feet high, 130 feet in diameter, and the trunk to have a girth of 14 feet, three inches.
The tree sits on property owned by Linda Eklund. The small, hip-roofed house on her property was once owned by one of the town’s founding father, Joseph Squire Grant, Sr. “I adore this grand old oak,” Eklund says, enthusiastically. “It was the deciding factor that made me decide to purchase the house.” Eklund would prefer that we not publish the exact address of the property, for fear that it would encourage busloads of tree-lovers to tromp through her yard to see the great tree. No, it’s not accessable from the street.
“This is an amazing, beautiful tree,” Trainer says, “and it’s easily among the oldest and largest black oaks in the United States, and positively the ‘champion’ of the State of Washington. I’d say this tree is in the top five or six, nationally.” The Yukon Harbor Historical Society has photos of the tree dating back as early as 1906, and the tree was full-grown at that point. It has a distinctive pattern of branches, so it is easily identified in old black and white and tintype photos. The tree was probably brought to Western Puget Sound by either Grant or his brother-in-law, William Morgan, and planted at the current location.
According to Trainer, there are a surprising number of national champion trees of different species in the area. He located and identified a champion-class cottonwood near harper, and has also found a subspecies of maple in Southworth.
Trainer, who owns and operates a tree service, Treez Inc, analyzes and helps manage the health of trees like this one. His company “is committed to preserving and enhancing the environment by keeping it green. This is accomplished through reforestation, restoration, mitigation, evaluations and natural resource consulting. This company is dedicated to educating the community in the preservation and management of trees and the forests.” He has authored a high quality book, Kitsap Trees, which can be purchased through his website, TreezInc.com.
He deems the tree to be in excellent health. The oldest black oak known to Trainer is located in Wisconsin, and dates back to the 1500’s. The age calculation is based on the tree’s size and girth, and the exact age could be calculated by coring the trunk, but that process has not yet been performed.
While the condition of the Colby Black Oak is good, it’s life in this unusual climate is not without problems. The acorns the tree produces are oddly-shaped, probably because black oaks naturally grow in climates that have a longer and colder winter. Trainer says he will attempt to grow second-generation trees from some of the nuts he picked up during his inspection, but will freeze them for several months in order to “fool” the seeds.
The top photograph, taken this fall, was captured by Roy Neyman as the tree began to turn. The lower photograph was taken a few weeks later. All images are copyright Yukon Harbor Historical Society.