Local News | Daily Chronicle

Historic DeKalb oak tree felled by rot, area residents recall its legacy

The tree, estimated to be more than 200 years old, was likely among oldest living in the county

Workers from D. Ryan Tree and Landscape take photos of the stump of the historic oak tree at 240 Rolfe Road in DeKalb after it was cut down Thursday, July 21, 2022. The tree, one of the oldest in the city, was beginning to die and lost a branch in a storm last week so at the advice of an arborist the city opted to remove it rather than risk more branches coming down and causing damage or injury.

DeKALB – A tree estimated to be more than 200 years old was cut down recently after it succumbed to rot, and area residents are recalling fondly its DeKalb legacy.

On July 21, crews contracted with the city of Dekalb cut down a historic oak tree on Rolfe Road for liability reasons after a recent rainstorm caused a large limb – which had already been cabled to the tree – to fall.

“It’s like losing a best friend, quite honestly,” said Diane DeMers, who has lived in DeKalb for 33 years and said she could see the oak tree through her kitchen window.

The tree sat between the curb of 240 Rolfe Road and the sidewalk, making it property of the city of DeKalb.

DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas said because the canopy of the hundreds-year-old tree extended over the street, sidewalk and the adjacent property, the city had to act to ensure more hefty limbs wouldn’t fall. Nicklas said the significant-sized limb that broke off and crashed to the ground on July 15 could have crushed a car or killed somebody.

Nicklas said a certified arborist, under contract with the city, came out and did an analysis of the trunk and limbs of the tree. Nicklas said the arborist told him the health of the tree was failing.

“It still has a canopy of leaves,” Nicklas said, “and sometimes people look at that and say ‘Oh, it’s OK,’ but certain species don’t lose their leaves before they can fail.

“In other words there’s rot inside the trunk that you can’t see from the outside,” Nicklas said.

DeMers, who has lived in her home near the tree since 1989 said she understood the reason the tree, which officials estimated predates the founding of the country, had to be felled.

“Thing is, it’s so vibrant, it’s just that it’s diseased and I think the interior is pretty split. And, you know, for liability reasons they need to take it down, but it’s beautiful,” DeMers said.

The tree is estimated to predate the arrival of the Ellwood family to the area, one of DeKalb’s more prominent early families. The tree also is likely older than the period of time when European settlers came to the area in the early 1800s.

“This tree was there when the Ellwoods had horses in the pasture,” DeMers said.

She wasn’t the only person to have grown a strong affinity for the tree. Fifty-four years before DeMers moved into the house nearest the tree, the home was built for Dr. James Ellis and Dorothy Ellis.

Barbara Ellis Bennett, the daughter of the Ellises, grew up in that house and developed fond memories of the old oak tree. Bennett said her father loved the tree, which played a significant factor in her family’s decision to build the home on that land.

After growing up, moving away and starting a family, Bennett said she would still bring her kids to her parents’ place for Christmases and Thanksgivings.

“We came to celebrate with my folks no matter what the holiday was,” Bennett said. “So they all, my five children, all are just so fond and so devastated that that tree is going down.”

Bennett said she understands why the city elected to bring the tree down, and doesn’t want anyone or anything to be hurt, but considers the ordeal a shame.

DeMers, who was home when the July 15 rainstorm broke off a large branch, suggested to the city the bark could be repurposed to honor its life. She said she would love to see a bench made for the Ellwood House museum, which is just down the street from her residence.

“If they have to take the stump out maybe something historical could be carved into it,” DeMers said. “It’s massive, you know, with some thought they could really design something that reflects the history of DeKalb.”

A branch from the historic oak tree at 240 Rolfe Road in DeKalb shows some of the heavy rot Thursday, July 21, 2022 that made it a hazard. The tree, one of the oldest in the city, was beginning to die and lost a branch in a storm last week so at the advice of an arborist the city opted to remove it rather than risk more branches coming down and causing damage or injury.

Nicklas said he agreed and had planned to have large portions of the tree stored at a secure site with the city’s Public Works Department. That idea, however, didn’t come to fruition. When the oak was brought down, it was discovered that rot and ants had gnawed away at the tree from the inside, rendering the bark unusable.

The day after the massive oak was felled, DeMers said she felt like she’d witnessed the end of a hundreds-of-years long circle of life.

“I got up and I walked outside and it’s heartbreaking,” DeMers said. “I love the sunshine but it shouldn’t be there, it just shouldn’t be in that spot.”