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As Texas searches for historic trees, Abilene surprisingly offers plenty

By Loretta Fulton

Heading for Reporter News, Stevens Co. Media on HalfWay Oak

Published: 7:50 PM, Jul 17, 2014

Special to the Reporter-News

ABILENE, Texas – An initiative is underway to identify one historic tree from each county in the state to be recognized. Surprisingly, Abilene has a number of potential nominees.

Some may not be exactly “historic,” but they mark the spot where something interesting happened or carry a good tale — a mesquite in Rose Park marks the burial spot of a beloved monkey that once roamed freely, or another mesquite named the “buffalo tree” because of a legend that grew up around it.

A pecan tree near Buffalo Gap — admittedly not in Abilene, but close — marks the spot where a dugout served as the birthplace in 1879 of a future governor of Arizona.

The County Historic Tree Initiative is a project of the Texas Historic Tree Coalition. Gary Barton, Region IV co-chairman, contacted county historical commissions in the state requesting nominations. The general public also is invited to make suggestions.

The coalition is looking for three nominations from each of the state’s 254 counties, with one being chosen for recognition. The project will originate on the coalition’s website, www.txhtc.org, and may develop into a book.

Barton wrote in a news release that “historic trees” might be associated with historic events at courthouses, churches, schools, cemeteries or other longtime facilities. That should help some areas such as West Central Texas and beyond, he noted.

“Using these criteria will enable those few counties that are tree-challenged to contribute fully,” Barton wrote.

Several local historians and longtime residents already came up with a few ideas that at the very least are entertaining even if they aren’t chosen for inclusion in the project. Even if Abilene is tree-challenged, much of the county isn’t.

A huge pecan tree located near Perini Ranch Steakhouse on the outskirts of Buffalo Gap marks the spot where a dugout once served as home to a family moving from Chattanooga, Tennesse, to Arizona.

The mother of the family was pregnant and only made it as far as a dugout near Buffalo Gap, where relatives lived.

The baby, Rawghlie Clement Stanford, was born Aug. 2, 1879. The family eventually moved on to Arizona, where Stanford grew up to become governor, serving from 1937 to 1939.

His great-nephew, Jerry Edmison, grew up near the dugout and now lives on land across FM 89 from the restaurant. He recalled in 1952, in the midst of a severe drought, of walking on the land and coming upon a remarkable find.

“There was a big beautiful tree,” he said, “and right there under that was a dugout.”

One of Stanford’s biggest “photo ops” as governor of Arizona was to host the governor of Texas, James V. Allred, at the Old Settlers Reunion in the summer of 1937. Edmison said newspapers reported that 30,000 people crammed into Buffalo Gap for the occasion.

Abilene may not have pecan trees to rival Buffalo Gap, but it does have some noteworthy mesquites. One of those, at South 7th and Peach streets, is known as the “buffalo tree.” It has a huge limb growing parallel to the ground. Jay Moore, an Abilene High School history teacher and creator of the “History in Plain Sight” video series about Abilene’s history,” said the tree got its name from old-timers who claimed that buffalo scratched their backs on the limb, causing its unusual growth pattern.

“I’m sure it’s myth,” Moore wrote in an email, “but it makes for a good story.”

Another mesquite located in what is now Rose Park marks the spot of the final resting place for a monkey named “Jake” that was well known by almost everyone in Abilene.

The park once housed a zoo and was known as Fair Park. Probably the most-loved animal in the zoo was Jake, Moore said.

“He was so gentle the staff let him roam the park, and he often sat in the tree” Moore wrote. “When he died they buried him beneath that tree.”

Jake was so beloved that his death warranted a front-page article in the Reporter-News on April 7, 1946. J.D. Burns, caretaker of the zoo, said Jake was believed to be about 30 at his death and had lived in the zoo for 26 years.

The parks superintendent of the day, A.G. Gent, paid Jake a kind of backhanded compliment in the monkey’s “obituary.”

“Jake wasn’t much to look at,” Gent said in the newspaper article, “but everybody in town knew him. They never failed to ask about him when visiting the zoo.”

Another possible entry in the historic tree collection is a large elm located near Castle Peak in western Taylor County. Robert Sledge, retired McMurry University history professor, mentioned it in Volume 1 of his two-volume history, “A People, A Place: The Story of Abilene.”

The tree was a favorite camping spot for cowboys, hunters and drovers, Sledge wrote in an email.

“They called it Elm Hotel,” he wrote.

Former McMurry librarian Joe Specht suggested a tree known as “The Stamey Tree” located near the Jay-Rollins Library on campus honoring the late philosophy professor Joe Stamey. When Stamey retired in 1999, a tree was planted in his honor and Stamey chose a bois d’arc.

“He brought what appeared to be a twig to be planted next to the library,” Specht wrote in an email. “Until the twig grew to a size to be recognizable, the library staff had to be diligent in protecting it from being mowed down by the grounds crew.”

The tree survived the mowers and now has its own granite marker paying tribute to Stamey.