ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
The weathered old cottonwood tree that stands in front of Hillsboro’s new post office at First and Main may be the oldest living thing in town.
As the city approaches its 120th birthday celebration, the tree stands as a living memorial to the early foundations of the community. Nobody contacted knows now whether the native Kansas tree was planted purposely, if it was a wild seedling that sprouted along railroad siding or if it was already there at the town’s founding.
Marion County historical writings confirm the native cottonwood tree was stocked in the first nurseries along with other easy-to-grow trees such as the box elder. Of course, an early transplant might only have required a pioneer going to a creek with a shovel.
During a search for a record of the tree, a 1929 photograph was found of a parade during Hillsboro’s 50th jubilee celebration. So, 70 years ago it was already as tall as the two-story building across the street that now houses the offices of Cooperative Grain & Supply.
It appeared big enough to already be 40 to 50 years old in 1929, or perhaps only 25 to 30 if rainfall was abundant in the early decades of the town.
The photo appears on Page 8 of “A Guide to Hillsboro, Ks,” compiled by workers of the Writer’s Program of the U.S. Work Project Administration. The booklet was sponsored by the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce and published by the Mennonite Brethren Publishing House in 1940.
Another photograph, on-file at Tabor College, was taken 10 years earlier in 1919. It shows workers hand-paving Main Street with bricks. The picture looks like the CG&S building again with the tree again as high as the building. But several people who looked at it couldn’t decide if this was the correct scene.
Identifying the location of old photos can be difficult with changing surroundings. Most early photographers seemingly chose to shoot Main Street from the south end of town instead of from the north end, where the tree might more easily have been pictured.
Remark how beautiful the tree is, with its giant bonsai look from decades of limb breaks and spreading to sunlight, and current Hillsboro residents react differently to such chatter.
Most people agreed the gnarly, thick-trunked specimen indeed is beautiful and a tribute to life here. But occasionally somebody will grump back that, “It’s messy.”
Ted Russell, sales and service associate at the post office, agreed with others in the postal service that it was beautiful, and that it somehow was important to preserve it for the sake of Hillsboro’s history
“It was a landmark,” he said. “The tree probably has been there as long as the city has been here. It’s part of Hillsboro. Our people discussing a location for the post office decided we would have to put the post office elsewhere if it interfered with the tree. We made the parking lot here smaller in the final plan to avoid taking it out.
“This was once railroad land,” he added. “In pictures and records of the old city, there was a railroad depot to the north. Funk’s Supply was once there. There were other things to do with rail freight, and the depot used to have a repair yard and other things.
“I’m 55 now, and I know the tree was here and big when I was a kid. But it’s older than that by a long shot.”
Biologists in town with the school system and Tabor College have agreed the cottonwood tree is “well over 100 years old.” One of them, Paul Jantzen said it could easily be 120.
But they don’t know exactly because core samples of the tree proved it is hollow, and, consequently, missing many rings.
Jantzen can only say for sure that it is worthy of historical preservation.
Raymond Wiebe, who has written historical accounts of Hillsboro, knows the tree has been there “a really long time.”
At one time, he said, it was among landmarks at the town’s north entrance onto Main Street. Among other landmarks was a small wooden grain elevator that set somewhere close to where the post office is now, he said.
Richard Wall, who teaches biology at Tabor, said he couldn’t give any information about the tree other than that it’s been there for years.
“I was hoping they wouldn’t be taking the old tree out,” he said. “I don’t know how solid it is anymore.”
Ted Friesen, 84, can remember the cottonwood tree was there when he was growing up in the 1930s, “but that was the north edge of town back then. We didn’t go there much.
“There were only 1,200 people in the town then. It looked a whole lot different. I know the lumberyard had a row of bins to get coal off the trains, and there were trees there. I know that tree was there, but that’s about all.”
There were suggestions that Viola Jost, who died recently after surpassing 100 years of age, might have had earlier memories of the tree.
Her stepson, Karl Jost, 68, can understand why people might think that, but he doesn’t remember her ever mentioning the cottonwood tree-and she wasn’t born in Hillsboro.
“She came here in the 1920s from southeast Kansas, and married Dr. Claassen,” Jost said.
“As for myself, I’ve always admired that big old tree. It’s been there as long as I can remember, and my earliest memories have always been of it as a big tree. We used to go to a blacksmith shop across from it.”
Ray Funk, 80, also remembered the tree from early times.
“I know it’s been there longer than I’ve been around,” he said. “There were quite a few old-time cottonwoods on Main Street, but they’re all gone but that one. It’s easily over 100 years old.
“There wasn’t a building exactly right there. They used to keep sand and coal on the south half of the lot.
“They moved the old Bruderthal School there on the railroad lots at one time as part of Buller Manufacturing. Then they moved it north of Funk Supply, where it is now. Buller became Prairie Products. Back then, Buller made sawbucks, hitches, did cutlery and other things.”
Several persons recommended calling Ennis Unruh, who, at 82, is among the older generation of Hillsboro residents.
But Unruh said he is among the many people who have chosen to move here from elsewhere-in his case right out of the Air Force in 1946.
“I worked as a rural carrier for three different post offices,” he said. “I know the tree was there, but I never paid much attention to it.”
That may be the case for the biggest living landmark of Hillsboro history. The old cottonwood tree simply grew as people played under it as children, and went about their work without much notice.
If anyone knows more about the history of the tree, has a photo of it from an earlier time or you think you know of a living thing in Hillsboro that’s older than it is, please call Jerry Engler at the Free Press, 947-5702.