As the state crowns new champion maples, elms and oaks, 812 explores how our forests shape our culture.
Jackie Silver waited at the bus stop until her children boarded safely. It was a beautiful, summery morning and she was hanging laundry on a clothesline near a towering hackberry tree. The lowest branch, which emerged from the trunk about six feet up, held a swing for her kids. Jackie watched as the black rubber tire swayed gently in the breeze.
Later that morning, a neighbor called to ask Jackie why her daughter stayed home from school. She had seen her flying back and forth on the tire swing.“That wasn’t my daughter. That was me,” Jackie told her neighbor. ““I just wanted to be a kid again, and that tree gave me such a sense of wonder.”
The tree that left Jackie awestruck decades ago is now the champion Vigo County hackberry. It measures 99 feet tall and 18 feet wide, and was nominated for the 2015 Indiana Big Tree Register, published in May.
The register lists the biggest native trees of Indiana. Today, 101 one species are nominated based on height, width of trunk and span of crown. The first edition was published in 1974. Now a new edition comes out every five years.
A champion tree isn’t necessarily a giant, though. Indiana’s biggest ironwood, located in Vanderburgh County, measures just 12 feet tall and only 3 inches around, a toothpick compared to the 136-foot-tall champion sycamore in Johnson County. Tree species differ in size and shape, and the registry notes them all. Each native species gets its own category and a chance for one of its own to win the crown.
What may be most intriguing, though, is that 71 of the state’s 97 champion trees are rooted in the 812 region. Nearly three-fourths of the champions grow in the southern third of the state.
Here, big trees are a part of our history. They’ve influenced our agriculture, our roads and our commerce – even how we spend our leisure time. These swaying giants shade our homes and yards and provide wood for everything from dining tables to mountain dulcimers. They cleanse the air and support whole ecosystems of wildlife not found elsewhere in the state. In our lush state parks and forests, they give us a glimpse of what life was like in an earlier time.
Join us as 812 explores our wooded heritage.
Big Tree Hunters
Armed with a handful of measuring tools, these nominators search for new champions.
Mary Beth Eberwein sticks a white and green button with a tree on it through her blue parka. The pin identifies her as a big tree nominator for TREES Inc. in Terre Haute. Dave Shields and Lynn Van Etten, two other volunteers from Vigo, join her.
The trio walks through Deming Park, verifying measurements for the Vigo County champions. The biggest trees measured today will advance to the statewide competition for the Indiana Big Tree Register.
Shields is a retired employee of Verizon Communications and knows the region’s nooks and crannies, as well as some history. He points to a park shelter, which he says was once part of the Union Railroad Station in Indianapolis. “They took two sections at a time and made those shelters from them.”
For Van Etten, hunting big trees merges childhood memories with her former jobs teaching flight students at Lafayette Aviation, and later at Hulman Field in Terre Haute. She helped her father plant chestnuts and hickories as a child. Now she flies out from Hulman, over the forests from Terre Haute to French Lick in the fall, when the woods “look like they’re bursting.”
Eberwein is an adjunct online professor of biology at Saint Mary of the Woods College and delights in being in nature. She spent the last 15 years as a naturalist. Sometimes she notices a tree that might be native to Indiana, but unmentioned in the county or state register.
Trees of Indiana, written by Charles C. Deam in 1911, was the guidebook for native species for the first edition of the register. Deam was Indiana’s first state forester and the namesake of a wilderness area in today’s Hoosier National Forest.
The register expands when new species are found to be indigenous to Indiana. While only native species are entered into the register, certain county lists sometimes recognize hybrids.
Tree enthusiasts, both professionals and hobbyists, traditionally meet in groups like TREES Inc. to better understand the trees and forests around them – and to earn bragging rights.
“Everyone thinks they have the biggest tree,” says Janet Eger, a district forester for Lawrence and Orange counties who has coordinated the register for 25 years. She likes hearing the stories people tell about their favorite trees. “It’s a pride thing for most folks,” she says.
“Weren’t you shot at once?” Van Etten asks Shields as they pull their equipment from an old, blue Ford Fusion with an Indiana State University Sycamore baseball decal on the back door window.
Shields unloads the vehicle as if he didn’t hear her, but Eberwein laughs.
“He was hunting a pecan tree we had near Bloomington. The guy shot up in the air,” she says, and jerks her arms as if pumping a rifle. “It was just to let Dave know he was there.”
They saunter into the park and take in the scenery. Each hunter carries equipment: an altimeter, a yardstick and a bright, yellow wheel used to measure distance.
The DNR uses a point system to judge the size of the trees. The system accounts for the width of the trunk, the height of the tree and the span of the crown.
The crown is what grows outward from the trunk, all the way to the farthest leaves. Nominators start by looking for the widest span of the branches. They measure straight through the center of the tree from one side to the other. Then they take a second measurement perpendicular to the first one. They add the two measurements together and divide the sum by two.
The first tree the team measures is a sun-loving bitternut hickory. This one branches out more about 15 feet above the ground and is challenging the current county champion at the country club.
The upward angle of the branches can be deceiving. “The tree doesn’t grow up,” Shields says as he walks around it. “It only grows out.”
Shields and Eberwein use different methods to measure the height of the tree. Shields works with a pocket knife and a yardstick. He sticks the red-handled knife into the trunk of the tree 4 feet above the ground. Then he walks away. From a distance, the ground and knife appear one inch apart. So, for every inch, Shields estimates 4 feet of height.
Eberwein judges the tree’s height with an altimeter, which calculates the slope of the tree. Van Etten rolls a bright yellow wheel with a handle to and from where Eberwein stands with the altimeter. She measures the distance from the tree to the altimeter. They plug these two measurements into an equation to find the height.
Shields finishes his calculations. For now, at least, the country club tree keeps its crown.
All Sorts of Visitors
Jackie and Steve Silver
4425 S. 12th St., Terre Haute
One day, almost four decades after Jackie’s neighbor called to ask why her daughter was in the tire swing on a school day, a bus pulled up in front of the Silver's house. A group of people got out and gazed at the old hackberry. They were nominating trees for the state register.
“I thought it was weird,” Jackie says. But she let them measure her tree.
It took three people, hand-to-hand with outstretched arms, to get around the trunk, she says. “I think it would take more than three people now,” she says, as Steve hugs the tree.
The hackberry drops tiny pea-shaped seeds throughout the Silver's lawn. They rake them up and feed them to a fire. “They pop like popcorn,” Jackie says.
The trunk of the hackberry is still widening, even though they estimate the tree is more than a century in age. Steve built a garage close to the tree in 2001, and the trunk now pushes against it.
Squirrels love the tree, Steve says. He pulls out a picture of himself feeding a cookie straight from his mouth to Bob, a squirrel with a mangled front paw.
Bob and his fellow squirrels let the Silver family know when to feed them. “We were in the kitchen one day, ready to leave,” Jackie says, “when I heard a knock at the door.”
“I pulled back the curtains, and no one was there,” Steve says.
As soon as Steve told her he didn’t see anyone, Jackie knew it was the squirrels.
Southern red oak
11809 N. Saint Joseph Ave., Evansville
Jeff and Maureen Ungethiem
Southern red oak
2035 Fleener Road, Evansville
Two trees of the same species that grow within half a mile of each other now compete for the spot in the register. Neighboring families who grew up with these sentinels recall their favorite memories of them.
Jeff Ungethiem’s grandfather purchased the plot where the current state champion southern red oak stands. “I always wanted to build my house by the big oak,” Ungethiem says. “I just like the tree.”
Thomas Westfall, who nominated 21 of the 97 champion trees for the 2010 register, singled out the oak 10 years ago. “He said he was counting birds,” Ungethiem says of the day Westfall drove by his home.
“That tree has a pretty, small crown, and a really beautiful, wide trunk,” Westfall says.
About a half mile from Ungethiem’s tree stands Bob Akin’s southern red oak. Akin, now 62, whirled on the tree’s tire swing as a kid. He grew up down the street from the Ungethiem family.
Now the Akin tree provides shade for him and his brothers and their families during picnic reunions. Sixty members of the Akin clan can gather under the oak, he says. Shawn Dickerson, Evansville city arborist, nominated Akin’s tree for the 2015 register. Together they look up at the leafy crown.
“Did you ever give him grief about it?” Dickerson asks Akin about competing with the Ungethiem tree up the road.
Akin crosses his arms and shakes his head modestly.
Vanderburgh County is home to almost one third of the state champion big trees. Dickerson says this honor could be due to the humidity, and it could be due to the variety of trees that can prosper in the region.
Southern red oaks provide more than just shade and places for tree swings.
“There’s an old saying in the timber industry that a tree like that has good use from crib to coffin,” Dickerson says.
Akin and the Ungethiems have no intention of using their great southern red oaks for lumber, though. Too many memories.
On a pleasant summer night almost two years ago, Jeff Ungethiem and his family waited and watched the top of their biggest tree. On the other side of the tree, under the crown of the oak, one of Ungethiem’s four boys proposed to his girlfriend. A single lantern rose into the sky, a signal she had said yes. The rest of the family let their own lanterns follow into the August night.
My grandfather sparked my boyhood interest in trees by taking me on long walks through my Indiana hometown. He would point out the different trees we encountered. His favorite seemed to be the ginkgoes that grew near the town library. Mine were the elm, walnut and apple trees behind my childhood home.
The elm stands out because of its size. A white streak ran down from where the branches forked, about 15 feet up the trunk. In the heat of summer, the spot bled black sap. My father told me that the two hulking branches had stressed the trunk.
As a child I paced around the elm, using its emerged roots as stepping stones in whatever fantasy possessed me that day. Sometimes the act was just a childish form of meditation. Sometimes I pretended I was high in the air, and if my foot missed a root, I would fall to my death.
One day, after our rottweiler Megan died, I watched my father walk out toward the old elm. He had a shovel, and he dug just beyond the roots. I was young and didn’t understand what he was doing. I ran outside and asked him if he was looking for something. It was his hobby to search around the backyard with a metal detector. He’d find old things, lost things and pocket change. But this day, he said no and told me to go back inside.
I watched him from a window. After a while I got bored and went to mourn Megan, who was now wrapped in a blanket. Then it clicked.
My father carried Megan’s body to the grave he had dug. Ten years later he buried Bear, our family’s second rottweiler, near Megan. He even dug graves for squirrels that fell from the high branches of our American elm.
I asked my father why he chose to bury the animals there. He said it was the biggest tree we owned. He told me these animals would give something to life even in death.
I never walked on those roots again.
Back to Our Roots
Trees and forest shaped our history and our lives.
Long before European settlers arrived and drew political boundaries for Indiana, Native Americans were caretakers of the forests. For centuries they lived here, hunting deer, birds and other game. Occasionally they burned clearings to better find food, says Teena Ligman at the Hoosier National Forest.
The first white settlers quickly saw the potential of this abundant natural resource.
“These were massive trees, but it was dense, dark thick woods,” says James H. Madison says, author and professor emeritus of history at Indiana University. These woods teemed with wild game – wolves, black bear, panthers, deer, turkey. Nineteenth century naturalist Amos W. Butler wrote a book praising Southern Indiana’s early woodlands: “Perhaps nowhere could America show more magnificant forests of deciduous trees . . . than existed in the valleys of the Wabash and the Whitewater.”
Settlers first carved out clearings for cabins, then small farms, then towns. Furniture companies began to cull the magnificant hardwoods Butler so admired. “Evansville was once the furniture capital of the world,” says Evansville city arborist Shawn Dickerson.
The first ventures were tiny, often one-room, operations. But they grew quickly. “Initially, there were a large number of small companies,” Madison says, “then a small number of large companies.” Trains carried carloads of hickory from Southern Indiana to New York to build the Great Camps of the Adirondacks. Jasper became a center of furniture, cabinetry and Kimball pianos.
By 1900, Indiana was the nation’s leading hardwood producer. But as the woodlands disappeared, so did the wildlife. Large predators were mostly gone by the mid-1800s. White-tailed deer, eagles and turkeys followed. In 1901, Indiana’s forest area had dwindled from nearly 20 million acres to less than 2 million acres, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. It was a turning point.
As the state prepared to celebrate its centennial, Indianapolis businessman and German immigrant Richard Lieber pushed through the creation of a state park system, beginning with McCormick’s Creek in 1916. Other state parks and forests followed as the government purchased failed farmland and let it return to its natural state.
With the arrival of the Great Depression in the 1930s came the Civilian Conservation Corps, sometimes called Franklin Roosevelt’s “Tree Army.” Forest restoration became a job opportunity for unemployed men between the ages of 17 and 23. In Tell City, members of company 2853 gained an average of 12 pounds each, according to Ligman. These crews of young men not only planted trees but also built the rustic shelters, amphitheaters, overlooks and trails that we enjoy today.
As trees flourished in the growing number of parks, state and national forests, land trusts and preserves, the animals began to return. Today, white-tailed deer are plentiful – too plentiful in some areas. Wild turkeys strut through the woods again. Eagles soar over Lake Monroe and our lakes and rivers. Even bobcats have crept back.
And we can still get a glimpse of what those first European settlers found two centuries ago in some parcels of virgin and old-growth forests. Pioneer Mother’s Memorial Forest, south of Paoli in the Hoosier National Forest, comprises 88 acres of land untouched by humans or natural disasters. White oaks, black oaks, black walnuts and American beeches make up the majority of the forest, according to Chris Thornton of the U.S. Forest Service.
The online outdoor guide Trails.com gives the Pioneer Mothers forest five stars and this eloquent endorsement: “The ancient trees stand in silent testimony to the centuries they have survived on this earth. Their stubby arms and towering canopies prove that old lives have a grace all their own.”