About a week ago the wind and the ice came to town, as they frequently have, under the cover of darkness a few minutes after the 6:32 a.m. freight train had rumbled through from Blanchester.
The freezing rain was widespread and thick. Wilmington was particularly hard hit, with sizeable trees down near the college and cemetery. Several main and side streets throughout town were strewn with branches weighed down by the glaze.
The giant red oak tree on the west side of the courthouse that has stood straight and true for almost 100 years, and has watched as government officials and citizens have taken care of business inside the marbled halls, fell victim to the early November ice storm.
The county maintenance crew had just finished salting the sidewalks around the courthouse when a thunderous, deafening, cracking sound was heard that echoed off the buildings and reverberated throughout downtown as the tree crashed.
Luckily, the traffic light at South and Sugartree streets had stopped traffic just long enough for the tree to fall into an unoccupied space on the busy thoroughfare.
Had the tree fallen a couple of minutes earlier the traffic would have been busier, and worse, the county maintenance crew could have been trapped under the tremendous weight of the fallen timber.
Within seconds, emergency crews with lights and sirens arrived at the scene.
There had not been this much excitement around an ancient oak tree since the people of Mayberry were going to cut down the giant oak in front of the Mayberry courthouse in the episode “Mayberry Goes Hollywood.”
Like the tree in Mayberry, a tree that Sheriff Andy Taylor had climbed as a child, the large oak tree at the courthouse was full of memories, too.
Kids have come from all over Clinton County to sit on Santa Claus’ lap, to tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas.
The big oak has also seen a myriad of marches and demonstrations, presidential candidates, murder trials, horses tied around the courthouse, and happy couples visiting Probate Court to pick up marriage licenses.
The tree has seen sadness, too. The oak has seen families broken by divorce and crime, foreclosure of the family farm and the loss of the old home place.
As the sirens faded, I traveled to the scene to assess the damage. The tree removal company had arrived, cutting the large red oak limbs into small blocks of wood.
We knew at this time, thankfully, no personal injury or serious property damage had occurred.
Gradually, my thoughts turned to the historical aspect of the once majestic oak tree. In 2019, Clinton County will celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the construction of the courthouse.
A man with a whimsical look in his eyes walked over to me and asked, “Do you remember Raymond Burr from ‘Ironside’? Maybe we should call his brother, Tim, who is in the sawmill business.”
I looked at the man with a quizzical look on my face. His comment seemed bizarre at best.
I was focused on the fallen tree and didn’t think much more about his comments until I arrived home later that day. “Tim Burr,” I repeated to myself. I smiled as I realized the man had hit the sweet spot.
The man made other comments that were more profound and thought provoking. “You are near my age. Do people ever ask you what life was like when you grew up, and what has changed since then?”
“All the time,” I answered.
The man took a deep breath, choosing his words before he spoke.
“If that oak tree could talk, it would say it has seen massive societal change as a result of changes in law and the changes in our churches, schools and family units. I think I have the solution. Just change the laws back to the way they were when we grew up,” he said.
“Our people are compassionate people. Our forefathers built facilities to treat the mentally tormented, orphanages and children homes to care for children who were separated from their parents, infirmaries to care for the elderly. Also, we need to fix our families by making divorces more difficult to obtain. Allow teachers to discipline our children, and put the needs of the majority of our society before the needs of the individual,” he said.
A horn honked and the man rushed to a waiting car, disappearing as quickly as he had appeared.
I walked into the courthouse and past an assortment of individuals who lined the hallways as they awaited court.
“What had that old red oak already seen in its life, and if it really could talk, would we take the time to listen?” I wondered again.
Often times, the whispering tree’s story can be difficult to hear, but after all, in their way, trees live to tell a story.
Maybe we just need to listen more closely.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner and former Clinton County sheriff.