Tree stump tells the history of the county

James HowellStaff

September 2, 2012

A project to preserve local history has been undertaken by historians Pete Benda and Bill Sharp, who plan to use a tree stump to catalog some of the historical events of the area.

This stump is from the 265-year-old tree that once spread its branches over the Ashe County Arts Center in West Jefferson.

“There’s a lot more to the history of Ashe County than the cheese factory, the frescoes, and the New River,” said Sharp. “There is a lot of history here for people interested in the high country.”

For example, the tree stump can show remnants of the floods in 1940 and the snowfall in 1960 that paralyzed Ashe County, said Sharp.

Sharp went on to say this tree stump could be used as an educational tool that could teach how tree-ring dating works and give perspective to historical events.

Benda said the tree died in 2007, when it was chopped down after being struck by lightning.

The project began when Benda, a retired IBM employee and artist, noticed the stump while entering the arts center. Afterwards, he contacted Sharp, a church historian, to help with the task of preserving the tree stump.

To preserve the stump, Benda and Sharp placed gravel around it and made a barrier around the gravel. Benda said this should keep moisture from rotting the base, which would eventually wither the stump away.

Benda said, “We ought to preserve the tree stump and the stories it could tell if it could talk.”

“It’s quite accurate (tree-ring dating); the problem is finding the rings when they are bunched together,” said Benda. To pinpoint the rings, Benda resorted to using a magnifying glass.

According to Benda, tree-ring dating is accurate enough to know the years that had temperate climates versus extreme climates. Benda said wide spaces between rings identifies seasons that the tree grew the most, signifying a good climate.

To mark different periods of time, Benda and Sharp placed colored thumb tacks in the tree stump.

A thumb tack was placed in the center of the tree stump, marking its birth around 1747. Marked in the tree trunk was the beginning of every decade after the tree’s birth.

One curious detail of the tree stump is that until the early 1900s, the rings were closer together. Benda said this was due to the deforestation of West Jefferson. He said trees that grow in a forested area get less sunlight because of the thick forest skyline.

When the town began cutting down surrounding greenery to make room for the train, this tree was able to draw more sunlight, making it grow faster. In this way, the stump documents the industrialization of West Jefferson, said Benda.

Between 1930 and 1940, there was a large gash in the trunk of the tree. Benda noted that the arts center was constructed in 1938, and said the tree’s trunk was probably damaged during construction.

Benda and Sharp both said until the tree’s death in 2007, the tree had lived through the founding of the United States and the founding of Ashe County, the industrial age and the Civil War, all important historical events.

Even though the tree is no longer here, it managed to leave behind a piece of history.