Sentinel Oak finally meets its demise

Witness Oak 2 3
Pollick snapped this photo of the ancient oak tree along I-75 in Hancock County during one of his many trips up and down the highway.

Big old trees – really big old trees – are comfortingly eternal, until they’re not.

The demise of a mammoth, ancient swamp white oak in northwest Ohio’s Hancock County was like that. It seemed like it always would be there, a sentinel and a comfort to the untold numbers of motorists on I-75 who couldn’t help but notice it. It was one of the largest trees around, a surviving loner surrounded annually by corn or soybeans, and seemed to stand the test of time near Milepost 154.

I know that the Ancient Oak was part of my driving routine for decades whenever headed southbound from my Sandusky County home down I-75. And it faithfully was there to welcome me back as I neared home. An anchor in the sea of life.

Then in 2019 I noticed that it was dying. Come spring only a few of its massive limbs leafed out, the rest of them barren and dead. It brought a twitch to my heart. So often I wanted to just pull over on the berm, hop the right-of-way fence and walk the 300 or so yards to it, to be there, up close, to touch its antiquity. But such a trespass along a dangerous interstate would have been a fool’s errand.

Farmers Mark and Therese Meyer had attended the big old oak since 1965, when they bought the land where it had stood for centuries. Four generations of Meyers knew the tree. They named it The Sentinel Oak, an appropriate title.

“It was a hard day but not necessarily a bad day,” Mark told Ohio’s Country Journal in an on-line story about the day the then-dead oak was cut down. That was Feb. 19, 2021. “This tree had lived for a long time. Now we are going to turn it into live edge oak slabs,” Mark said. “It is sad to see it go but we don’t want it to go to waste either. A lot of people knew the tree. We never felt like we owned it. We were just caretakers.”

Yes, the Meyers’ had to choose whether to let the oak live on as furniture and other wood-ware, or let it rot in place. Being practical farmers, they made the practical choice.

The oak’s dimensions were awesome: 9.5-foot diameter at base, a 30.1-foot circumference at base, 7.1-foot diameter at 4.5-feet (”diameter breast-height”or “dbh “in forestry parlance). It had a 22.4-foot circumference at dbh, and it topped out at 68 feet, The maximum crown spread was 117 feet and average crown spread was 106 feet. The largest limb was 2 feet in diameter and stretched out at nearly a right angle to the trunk about 30 feet.

“The first branch was 8.5 feet up off the ground,” Mark told the Country Journal. “Normal trees in a woods would not have branches that low. At some point the trees around it were cut down. The tree was around 300 years old and the farm was not settled until 1851. It would have been 120 to 130 years old when it was sold for agricultural purposes. At that age, if it would have had trees around it, it would have a much taller trunk before it branched out.

“The story that was passed down to us from the previous owner was that the Native Americans took the trees down around it and used it in some sense for hunting, whether they hung meat up on the branches to dry and cure or they lured the game in to kill. It seems that its history origins go all the way back to the Ottawa or the Shawnee, whoever was in the area at the time.”

The Meyer family itself made memories of resting in the tree’s shade, eating lunch brought during harvest, circumnavigating the tree with farm equipment… sometimes unsuccessfully, and watching the sunsets through the tree’s branches.

As for determining its age, the initial plan was to count the rings in the stump after felling the tree. This proved impossible, for the center as hollowed out and reduced to something resembling potting soil.

The trunk cross-section the Meyers’ checked was 9 feet, 8 inches in diameter. Starting from the outside edge of the stump, they counted 101 rings in the first 18 inches of intact wood. The Sentinel’s radius was 4 feet, 10 inches, or 58 inches. Assuming the rings had been of uniform width to its center, the Sentinel’s age would have been 325 years. But this is at best, a conservative estimate, “as it is not our intention to exaggerate the Sentinel’s age,” the family posted on its Sentinel Oak web site.

“If the tree were still standing, and we were attempting to estimate the tree’s age based on the tree’s dimensions, a different age results. Purdue University indicated an estimate could be determined as follows. Multiply the tree’s growth factor (5 for a white oak) by the tree’s diameter in inches at a height of 4 feet, 6 inches above ground level. The Sentinel’s diameter at 4 feet 6 inches was 85.56 inches. When multiplied by the growth factor of 5, the age is estimated at 428 years.

“Given these two estimations, the Sentinel started to grow in either 1695 (325 years ago) or 1592 (428 years ago). We would like to think the tree’s beginning was 1592, but we will never know for sure,” said Mark.

For more on the Sentinel Oak, and on obtaining some of its live-edge lumber, visit @TheSentinelOak on Facebook or on-line at TheSentinelOak.com.

Categories: Ohio – Steve Pollick

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