Century-old oak tree was a beloved fixture at Mount Vernon Church
On a steamy August afternoon, Howard and Peggy Call stood beneath the shade of a towering red oak in the cemetery of Mount Vernon Baptist Church not to say goodbye to a departed friend or family member, but to the old tree itself.
“I’ve got a lot of good memories of kids playing around it, people standing out under the shade and sometimes having Easter sunrise service outside next to that tree,” said Howard Call about the ailing oak that was cut down Friday, Aug. 19.
Tree service proprietor Danny Hall said a burl (knot-like growth) had basically choked the root system of the tree that towered above the graveyard of the little country church on Yukon Road.
“A burl grew up on the bottom of it and that had taken all the sap. (The top of the tree) eventually died. We’d cut all the dead out of it and fertilized it within the last two years, but it didn’t help,” Hall said.
Vaughn Teague, a member of the church congregation who stopped by to see the tree come down that Friday, said he can remember it being there as long as he’s been coming to Mount Vernon. That, he confirmed, has been a while.
“It’s been here as long as I can remember and I’m 87,” said Teague, who added that he’s related, in one way or another, to the multiple generations of Teagues buried on the right-hand side of the cemetery.
Peggy Call said some have referred to the felled oak as “the Teague tree,” thanks to multiple grave markers etched with the surname name that surrounded it.
After counting the growth rings on its massive trunk, Hall said the tree was probably 103 to 105 years old.
“I’ve cut them down bigger than that, but that one is definitely in my top five (as far as size),” said Hall.
The oak had sentimental significance to many, as it provided a picturesque, natural backdrop to births, deaths, weddings, revivals and Sunday services that took place at the church during those 100-plus years.
“That tree has seen a lot,” Peggy said. “I wish it was all written in the arms of it there, to tell a story.”
One of those stories might involve Peggy, at age 15, being seated next to her future husband during a Mount Vernon revival at which she was saved. That was shortly after Peggy and her family came to Georgia from Mississippi and around the time she and Howard first met.
“My mother and my stepdad had built a little storefront on to their house, and you could walk from the living room into the store,” she remembered. “I walked from the living room to the store one day and saw Howard sitting there. We didn’t speak, but I told my mama, ‘I’m going to marry that boy.’”
Hated to see it go
Hall said the tree actually should have been smaller given its age and location on a hilltop just past the intersection of Yukon and Clear Creek Road.
“It’s amazing to me how fast it grew. It has to have something to do with the way they fertilized the cemetery. You can count the growth rings and tell it had plenty of water and fertilizer,” he added.
The cemetery, itself, might have something to do with that.
“Years ago, when it first started growing, they didn’t (prepare) the bodies like they do now. That may have fertilized it, too,” Hall said. “They can grow that big (in that amount of time) if they’re down next to the water, but that one was up on a ridge. Before I counted the rings, I thought it was about 150 years old.”
Longtime local funeral home owner Billy Bernhardt grew up across from the church and walked through a nearby pasture to attend services there as a child. Bernhardt said he worried about how much damage could be done to both the place of worship and the cemetery if the tree ever came down on its own.
“If the wind blew it down, it could’ve hit the church and knocked it down,” he said. “The roots had gotten higher and higher out of the ground. If it did get blown down, (the roots) would’ve pulled those vaults right out of the ground.”
For a while, it will be unusual not seeing the blossoming roadside fixture when topping the hill at Clear Creek, Howard said.
“It’s always been a familiar sight. The first thing that would catch your view when you come off the road would be the tree with the church steeple behind it. It’s just something that’s going to be missed,” he added.
“We really hated to see it cut down because it’s been a landmark for us for so many years, but in the future it would’ve been a danger. The choice just had to be made,” Peggy said.
It’s hoped that a section of the tree that was saved will be crafted into a display piece of some sort.
“They cut a big slice off of it that I think they’re going to have finished and hang in the basement of the church, maybe telling about when the church was founded and about the oak,” Peggy said.
Mount Vernon, which Bernhardt recalled was originally a log structure that preceded a wood design and the current red brick building, was established in 1849.
“I can just see that little acorn starting to sprout back then. The tree just grew with the church,” Peggy said. “Over the years, it’s just been a blessing to everybody.”