It only took a few minutes for the chainsaw to cut through Jake’s old pine tree. It fell with a crash, dead limbs shattering as they hit the earth. Surprisingly, the squirrels had all deserted the hollow limbs that arched out from the monarch like bare arms. All that was left to show they had been there were the leaves left behind in their nests.
The tree was not huge by white pine standards, 30 inches across and about 75 feet tall. Its rings recorded it was at least 144 years old, perhaps a few years older. Even with a magnifying glass it was impossible to make them all out. Jake’s pine didn’t live as long as many of its counterparts, but the old tree had proved it could be a survivor.
Jacob Illk set the tree out after he came home from the Civil War. The tree died in 2011, so that would make the year around 1868. Illk came to America from Wittenberg, Germany, where he was born in January 1836. He was 18 years old when he joined his brother, Abraham, in Vermilion County. Their father, Daniel, had also been a soldier, though he was a reluctant one, in Napoleon’s army. He took part in the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812.
Jake set the young pine tree out near his farm house, and when the tree began to make its presence known, the limbs on the west side had to be cut off so they wouldn’t grow into the structure. This gave the pine an odd shape as it made its ascent toward the heavens, but the western limbs eventually cleared the roof line, and were allowed to stretch out with their neighbors.
When Jake died in 1921 his tree had already attained a majestic height. It had also been damaged by storms. A tall, lone pine on the prairie is a little like a living lightning rod. But the tree survived the damage and made its way through the drought years of the Great Depression. During this period, the growth rings recorded there was very little growth.