Second chances come more easily in some cases than in others. When a 3,500-year old bald cypress tree near Longwood, Florida known as “The Senator” burned in 2012, local residents could not have imagined that any such second chance was in store for their beloved landmark. Thanks to the determination of the local community and a little luck, however, the outcome was nothing short of miraculous.
Longwood is located just north of Orlando in Seminole County. The earliest settlers arrived in the 1870s, mostly to get started in the citrus industry. One of the defining landmarks of the area was the cypress tree that would later be called the Senator. Local historians have suggested that both Native Americans and early settlers used the tree to help find their way from the St. Johns River to trading centers farther west. At its largest, the Senator was 47 feet around, 17.5 feet in diameter, and 165 feet high.
As Longwood grew and became a popular stopping point along the highway, the Senator took on a new role as tourist attraction. Several photos in the Florida Photographic Collection show visitors gazing in wonder at the majestic tree, or trying to see just how many people were required to encircle its massive base. After a hurricane snapped off 47 feet of the tree’s height in 1925, locals became very concerned about the welfare of this natural treasure. State Senator Moses Overstreet, who happened to own the land on which the tree stood, donated the acreage to Seminole County so it could be preserved. The area was called “Big Tree Park,” although the tree itself quickly became known as “The Senator” in honor of Overstreet’s generous gift.
The Senator prospered for the remainder of the 20th century, even regaining seven feet of the height it had lost in the 1925 hurricane. Tragedy struck on January 16, 2012, however, when a young woman set fire to the tree while smoking inside its large hollow base. The Senator quickly burned from the inside out, causing the trunk to collapse. All that was left standing was a charred, jagged stump. Seminole County officials closed Big Tree Park while they tried to figure out what to do next.
Two key developments combined to give Longwood’s famed Senator tree a new lease on life. Some years before the fire, a science teacher from Miami named Layman Hardy visited the Senator shortly after one of its branches had broken off and fallen during a storm. Hardy noticed several tiny buds of new growth on the branch. Realizing that these buds could be used to clone the unusually massive tree, he took them to a tree nursery owner in Lafayette County named Marvin Buchanan, who grafted clippings from the Senator’s branch onto other roots from the same species. Seven of the grafted trees survived, although their famous parentage was mostly forgotten.
When news of the Senator’s demise emerged, a forestor named Scott Sager remembered that the big tree had been grafted. Before long, Seminole County officials had arranged for one of Marvin Buchanan’s copies of the Senator to be carefully prepared, dug up, and transferred to Longwood for replanting in Big Tree Park. Seminole County schools held a contest to come up with a name for the newcomer – the name “The Phoenix” was chosen as the winner. The new tree was dedicated March 2, 2013.
Meanwhile, another project was underway to utilize wood from the original Senator. Shortly after the fire in 2012, a member of the Seminole County Historical Commission named Bob Hughes asked county officials if he could salvage wood from the fallen trunk to create a memorial. Hughes’ request was granted, whereupon he and others set up a program in which woodworking artists could apply to receive wood from the ancient tree to create works of art. There was a caveat. All artists receiving wood from the tree had to create exact duplicates of their pieces to give back to Seminole County. A total of 18 artists were chosen to participate. Their pieces, many now on display at the Museum of Seminole County History, capture the life and death of the Senator as well as a broader perspective of Florida’s natural beauty.
One of the most compelling displays consists of six columns of wood from the Senator’s trunk arranged in a circle representing the exact circumference of the original tree. The outer faces of the columns have been beautifully finished, while the inner faces still bear the black charring caused by the fire. Several other pieces are enclosed in a case at the center. This arrangement gives the visitor an opportunity to truly comprehend the magnitude of the historic tree by walking figuratively around and inside its former base. The full exhibit, titled The Senator’s Sculptures: Ancient Wood Reborn, will be open until September 30, 2015. Click here for details.
The Senator is no longer a natural beacon in Big Tree Park, but Seminole County’s citizens and leaders are clearly taking its legacy seriously. The tree’s successor, the Phoenix, is already some fifty feet tall, and the Museum of Seminole County History has found truly unique ways to articulate the majesty of the original. When it comes to second chances, a historic monument like the Senator tree could hardly ask for more.
What are the “famous” natural resources in your Florida community? What efforts have been taken to preserve them (or their memory) for future generations? Leave us a comment below, and don’t forget to share on Facebook or Twitter!