The West Austin Road Bur Oak

by Sybil Kolon

The West Austin Road Bur Oak once grew majestically about four miles west of Manchester. My association with it began in 1984, when the Washtenaw County Road Commission planned to cut it down because it was only three feet from the edge of the road. This in spite of there being no evidence that it had been involved in an accident. A group formed and was able to save the tree.

Early one morning in March of 2010 a sleepy driver hit it head on, the car caught fire, the occupant and the tree survived. In late May 2011, after it was leafing out nicely, the WCRC had the tree cut down, with the knowledge of the property owner, Camp Dianava.

This time we were not able to save the tree, but we were able to save several slices of the trunk. One of them was dried in the kiln at Hardwoods of Michigan in Clinton. A section of it was sanded to a smooth finish and taken to the dendrochronology lab at Michigan State University, where the rings were counted with a high-powered microscope.

It can now be stated with certainty that this bur oak sprouted before our country was founded. The exact year is unknown, but we do know it was about six feet tall in 1749. Each decade is marked by a dot along a line drawn from the center (1749) to the outer most ring (2010), 26 inches, with labels every 50 years. With its thick bark it was 4.5 feet in diameter.

Though it no longer lives, it does have a story to tell. We need to read its rings. It sprouted very close to what would become Austin Road, about 1740, on the line between Sections 6 and 7 of Manchester Township, which was surveyed in 1824. It was then about 11” in diameter. The interpretation of the rings is still ongoing.

There are very noticeable variations of ring growth over time. It would be interesting to research the weather and land use over time to see what relationships to tree growth could be made. That is what dendrochronologists do. Dr. Sophan Chin, who counted the rings, recognized the variation of the growth rings and suggested that when the tree was growing well, the local people were probably also doing well.

The felling of this tree was not welcomed by many, but having these rounds provides us with a unique opportunity to help people make connections to our history and to the natural world.

The following groups have also supported this project, and will each have their own round.
Manchester Area Historical Society, Hidden Lake Gardens, Walker Tavern Historical Site, Camp Dianava, Raisin Expectations.