Safety concern led to Bureau County’s historic Witness Tree being taken down

Keepsakes will be made from salvaged wood, no timeline set, official says

The Witness Tree is a more than 250-year-old burr oak in rural Bureau County, about 3.5 miles south of Mineral. The Bureau County Soil and Water Conservation District manages the tree's preservation.

After more than 250 years, the Bureau County Soil and Water Conservation District took down The Witness Tree, a burr oak, on Friday after the tree had developed a fungus/mold that had spread throughout the tree.

“We spoke with a certified arborist,” said Administrative Coordinator Ashley Wallace. “He did determine that the fungus wasn’t ‘deadly’ to the tree but mixed with the condition of the tree … and the safety concern, was the driving force for it being removed.”

Wallace said after the tree was cut down and the district was able to look at it, about 80% of the tree was either rotted or hollow.

Wallace said the primary safety concern for the public came within the last year as the tree began losing some massive limbs and it sits near a roadway.

“So, our concern, was that it was going to fall on the road, on a vehicle or just on someone, causing serious injury,” she said.

The tree is located about 3.5 miles south of Mineral near the intersection of County Road 100 E and County Road 1300 N.

The Witness Tree has a unique history, Wallace said. According to the Sheffield Historical Society and its documents, the tree serves as a meeting spot for indigenous tribes in the area, including the Potawatomi, Sauk and Fox, they would hold councils there. It was used as a reference point or landmark when settlers would pass on their travelers. Around 1850 it was used as a landmark by surveyors for the Rock Island Railroad, as well.

Wallace said the district will be dedicating a new Witness Tree at the same spot later this year. However, the district also hopes to memorialize the tree in other ways.

“We’re leaning towards getting a bench or a new sign carved out of [the tree],” she said. “We are also going to use some salvaged wood to make keepsakes for the public like coasters and ornaments.”

She said the district doesn’t have a timeline in place for when the keepsake items will be ready, but it is shooting for this fall.

Wallace said the Witness Tree was a significant part of the county’s history, and whether most residents know it or not, most people have a memory connected to the Witness Tree.

“The whole goal of the conservation district acquiring the tree was to continue the history and the legacy of it,” she said. “So, our main goal is to continue that with the dedication of the new tree at the same site.”