By C.V. Moore
FAYETTEVILLE -- Long before Theophilus Gaines ever made his way to Fayette County after the Civil War, two white oak trees sprouted from a stump. They eventually grew together into one enormous trunk, and then, hundreds of years later, a powerful derecho split the tree in two once again.
Now, the new owners of the historic Gaines property in Fayetteville are attempting to save the white oak, which counts among the largest of its kind in the state.
Standing alone in a pasture, the tree, with its lichen-covered branches and wide, sturdy crown, has the aura of a lonely survivor.
"That tree was probably one of the original trees in the original forest,'' says Allen Waldron of the West Virginia Division of Forestry, who recently measured the tree for inclusion in the state's Big Tree Registry.
He says it could be anywhere from 200 to 400 years old. It's hard to tell a tree's age without boring a hole into its heart and taking a core sample, or cutting it down to count the rings.
"And we don't want to do that,'' he says.
Neither does Bill Wells, part owner of Cascade Properties, the company that recently purchased the historic Gaines Estate to create a resort, conference center and vacation rentals.
After the June 29 windstorm, Wells was driving through the 190-acre property inspecting for damage. He had already noted several enormous downed oaks at the edge of his pasture when he saw the crack in the tree, wide enough to see a fair amount of daylight.
"I was disappointed. We don't want to lose the tree. It's such a beautiful tree,'' said Wells.
He and his wife, Sally, took some measurements of the tree and submitted them to the Big Tree Registry. They also hired Davey Tree Service to save it, along with an enormous maple on the property that has also split.
Tree surgeons' with the company will install cables around the branches and steel rods in the base to bolt the two stems together and try to draw them in. They will also trim some of the tree's crown. Saving both trees will cost around $10,000 total.
The white oak stands in a high pasture field behind the historic Gaines Mansion, a neo-colonial residence on West Maple Avenue built circa 1920 by New River Co. president Ebersole Gaines, according to a National Register of Historic Places nomination form prepared in 1990.
Wells guesses that the tree was here before any white settlers laid eyes on the land.
Waldron says it may have been spared when the pasture was developed, as shade for cattle. A barn on the property dates to the immediate post-Civil War period and still contains old milking equipment.
Now, a wooden bench sits at the base of the tree, ideal for contemplating the property's bucolic landscape, which includes a small orchard of apples and pears.
"It's a unique tree because of its age and the beauty of it,'' says Wells. "And it was important to the Gaines family as well, because they left it here. I think it's one of the first things you see when you come into the pasture field, especially in the summer when the leaves are on. It's a focal point.''
When Turner Sharp answers the phone, he is sitting down by Cunard in the New River Gorge, measuring trees "just for fun.'' He likes to do it in the winter, when there's no poison ivy to worry about.
Sharp is the volunteer behind the Division of Forestry's newly updated Big Tree Registry, which is an "ongoing effort to locate, measure, and record the largest trees in the state.'' Besides forested areas, the trees are often found in towns, cemeteries, church lots, old home sites, and near springs.
"I do it just because many of the trees that have been felled or destroyed, very few accurate records were ever kept of what was there, and I was kind of interested to find out what's left,'' says Sharp.
"And I'd just like to know, under good growing conditions, what's the maximum a species can do. We really don't know.''
The oldest white oak listed in the "Eastern OLDLIST'' database of ancient trees in the eastern United States is a 464-year-old specimen in Buena Vista, Va.
"To get a tree that big is pretty remarkable, given all these events -- hurricanes, twisters, microbursts, and then the fires, insects, and disease,'' says Waldron.
"It's a wonder we have any of those big ones anymore. They survived all that through all those years. That's what makes it pretty remarkable to me.''
Waldron measured the tree with electronic tools that use laser beams and sound to estimate distance. Its height of 80.9 feet, circumference of 229.5 inches, and average crown spread of 112.75 feet mean it scored 338.6 points on the International Society of Arboriculture grading scale. A few points will be deducted to adjust for the crack through the tree.
The W.Va. Big Tree Database, current through the spring of 2011, lists only two other white oaks in the state that would beat out Fayetteville's in size -- the largest of these is in Summersville. But Sharp says that a new white oak added to the database this year in Tucker County scored a whopping 360, bumping the Fayetteville tree out of the top three.
Wells was hoping for a champion on his property, but Dan Parker, a professional forester with Tillinghast and Neely Foresters who did the original timber survey for Cascade, says tree value is factored by more than just size.
Attributes like species type, placement within an estate, shape, and overall quality also contribute. Ultimately, he is measuring how much it would cost to replace the tree.
"Exceptional trees on properties of that nature add value to the property, and this is one of those trees,'' he says.
Parker estimated the worth of the white oak at $30,000.
"It was obvious that the owners thought a lot of it. It meant something to them,'' he said of the Gaines family, who left the tree to grow in the pasture.
Whatever that significance was in the past, Parker says that now one of its purposes for Wells and his business partners is to help attract visitors to the future Cascade Resort.
Wells says when building vacation rental houses on the property, he plans to cut the minimum number of trees possible and place the houses in a forested setting.
"The visitors will appreciate it, and it will be an asset for those purposes. The guests, the owners, and the community will benefit because of these trees that add significantly to the attractiveness of the property and the endeavor,'' he said.
"Oaks around the world have an image of strength, endurance and history. People just respond to it on a visceral level. And that adds value.''
White oak trees are notably long-lived. They are a common native species in Appalachia that has traditionally been put to use in industry, whether it be furniture, flooring, or whiskey making. The strong, watertight wood makes great staves for whiskey barrels.
But a white oak that's still alive has important uses too.
"It produces acorns, and that's really important for wildlife,'' said Waldron. "All those oak species are really important to deer, bear, turkey. The whole system is driven on those acorns.
"That one did pretty good this year on mast. You see a lot of acorns on the ground, so it's still producing.''
Waldron said that despite its already advanced age, the white oak has a good chance of making it far into the future with the help of the steel pins and cables. That is, unless it suffers the blow of another heavy snow or lightning strike.
The Cascade property is also home to several other large tree specimens, including maples, a Norway spruce, another white oak, walnuts, buckeyes, and poplar.
But it's a gnarled, moss-covered European beech near the old mansion that really catches the visitor's eye. Waldron wants to record its dimensions too, but is a little perplexed about how to negotiate the measurement of its bulbous trunk.
The European beech, unlike the white oak, was planted by a human, some years ago, which leads Parker to wonder about its origins.
"There's a story behind it,'' he said. "It's not native. Somebody had to bring it over from Europe. Who did it and why they did it would be interesting to find out.''
And with only three other European beeches currently in the state's Big Tree Database, Wells just may have a champion on his hands this time.
For more information about the Big Tree Program, or to nominate a tree of your own, visit http://www.wvcommerce.org/resources/forestry/big--tree.