The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

January 6, 2013

Century-old pine was like a friend


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.

World War II was raging when the house Jake built burned to the ground. It had housed his children, grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. The pine tree was badly scorched by the fire and many needles were burned away. Jake’s great-grandson, Harold, recalled neighbors wanted to cut the tree down, but he interceded and the pine was given a reprieve.

A basement was dug for a house to replace the pioneer home and the dirt was piled around the pine. The contractor thought the tree was going to die, so little care was taken in piling the dirt. A large wound was inflicted on one side of the tree by the equipment. But Jake’s pine shook off the fire damage and the contractor’s wound and greened up. Its limbs once again made their way out over the family home.

When the severe ice storms of the 1950s came, the soft maples on the farm dropped truck loads of limbs, but the pine lost hardly a bough. There was more lightning damage as the tree survived the remainder of the century, but it still clung to life.

When the severe windstorm hit Vermilion County on July 13, 2004, Jake’s pine shed one of its large limbs on the house. It snapped rafters like match sticks, and didn’t stop until it reached the floor of the entryway. The mast of the tree, already stunted and crippled by the elements, also gave way and found its way to the ground. Crippled but alive, the old veteran still had six large limbs intact.

Over the next several years the limbs died one by one. In 2011 the tree, which had lived to see two railroads come and go on the farm, shed its last green pine needle. During a long life it had shaded horses and carriages and the autos that replaced them. Generations of family members had enjoyed Jake’s pine for more than a century.

A visitor noticed the pine was gone and remarked, “Well, I see you finally got rid of that dead tree." ”No," I told him, "an old friend was laid to rest."

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.