Few people today would ever think of growing a tree by just planting a seed. More likely, they would look up catalogs or surf the Internet for specially grown seedlings, that look like little more than twigs. Trees to be.
But people aren’t the only tree growers. Seeds can fall into or be washed away by rivers and streams, and then take root in soft, wet soil. If the birds don’t eat the seeds, that is. Sometimes birds and even ground animals carry away seeds produced by trees, and then the process begins.
This is probably what happened in Kiwanis Park, well over 300 years ago. Somewhere else in the forest, or in the Oak Savanna at Washington and Arden avenues, a new tree may be beginning to grow, right this very second.
There exists in the park a particularly old and ancient tree, certainly ancient in relation to the earliest existence of the Village of Brookfield. This tree is a mighty, leafy white oak, and is known as the Constitution Tree. In 1987, it was determined to have been standing for over 200 years, and thus in existence when the U.S. Constitution was drawn up and signed in 1787.
Responsible for locating Brookfield’s oldest living “resident” in 1987 were Paul Bures, superintendent of Streets and Forestry, and Fred Tiscareno, a village forester. The search began as a consequence of Bures’s attendance at a seminar at the Morton Arboretum in DuPage County. It was then and there that he found out that awards were going to be given by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA)to any village that could prove it had within its borders a tree at least 200 years old or older.
Bures took up the challenge and, with Tiscareno’s help, located what appeared to be just what they were looking for. An old, wide, towering quercus alba, or white oak, if your Latin is rusty. It’s a member of the beech family, and is deciduous, which means it has lobed leaves and acorns that fall. Nothing like, say, a live evergreen, whose needles just stay stuck on forever.
“I used an increment bore to pull out a sample of wood,” said Bures. “[It] has a tap screw with a T-[shaped] handle that is driven [horizontally] into a tree [core]. The sample [removed] is just one-half the diameter of a pencil.”
The long, thin, wood sample was then sent off to the ISA’s Illinois headquarters in Urbana. Dr. E.B. Himelich, the association’s plant pathologist examined the sample and pronounced that the tree was definitely as old as the U.S. Constitution, and maybe even a century older than that. As a result, Brookfield became the first village in Illinois to receive an official commemorative marker from the National Arborist Association and the International Society of Arboriculture.
Bures and Tiscareno had determined through core sampling that many other trees in Kiwanis Park were also 200 years old, or older, but the white oak seemed the most promising. Bures himself said he counted the tree rings on the oak’s core sample and estimated that about 287 years were represented.
A final determination by the Natural History Survey, a division of the Department of Conservation in Champaign determined that the tree was between 300 and 320 years old, making the tree’s saplinghood birthday as between 1667 and 1687.
Did the tree predate the Constitution? Absolutely! In fact, it was growing before the Revolutionary War, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and even before George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and all our nation’s forefathers and foremothers were born. Indians looked upon this tree. Perhaps even the 17th-century French explorers Pere Marquette and Louis Joliet glanced at it during their travels.
In 1995 the tree measured a robust 100 inches around, Today, at a measuring height of five feet above the ground, the tree is about 112 inches. And the inch total increases as the tape gets closer to ground level. This tree is still growing, thanks in part due to vitamins being put into the iron-poor soil around it.
And to think that this giant oak tree, perhaps 120 feet in height, began life as nothing more than a little acorn, whose outer shell was never penetrated by weevils, bluejays, woodpeckers, squirrels or other animals such as deer and wild turkeys.
One tiny acorn, out of 10,000 that could possibly survive to become a tree, took root in the ground and began to grow, and grow and grow. No insects, caterpillars or fungi killed it off, no Indians or settlers chopped it down, and no lightning felled it in a blaze of burning glory. Despite being composed of heavy, strong, hard, tough, close-grained, durable, and altogether valuable wood, especially useful as a building material, this tree survived for over three centuries.
And here it is, today, still pretty much ignored by the people moving around it. But the tree will probably have the last laugh. After we are all dead and gone, it will still be here. At least it will be if it gets enough water and iron in its soil. There’s an oak in Louisiana that’s estimated to be over 1,000 years old. Our oak is practically only a teenager by comparison.
Brookfield’s Constitution Tree was honored on the very first of four years that the award was given out until 1991, the date of the bicentennial of the Constitution’s ratification. Only a few trees across the entire United States received this official designation, not because there were so few trees that could meet the requirements of age, but because of the lack of companies willing to invest money and time to sponsor the program.
Today the tree rests within its border of eight railroad ties, a 17-foot square area currently in need of some wood chips. The tree can always use more nourishment. Acorn production is approximately every two years, and the frequency, quantity and size of the nut seeds depends on rainfall, frosts and soil nutrients.
No one knows how far down the center tap root goes, or how wide and away from the tree the upper roots extend. An ordinary oak tree needs 50 or more gallons of water a day. This giant must surely need more than that.
At the base of the tree is the official plaque, indicating that the tree is at least of Constitution age. The plaque recognizes this as a “significant tree in this bicentennial year  as having lived here at the time of the signing of our Constitution.”
Will this historical plaque, mounted on a red granite boulder, still exist to the tree’s final days, perhaps many hundreds of years from now? The plaque may not survive the passing of years, but the tree probably will.
However, let us also give two living persons their own moment in history. To the bottom left of the plaque is an attached strip of tarnished metal, bearing the names of Paul Bures and Fred Tiscareno. Without their dedicated search, this venerable old oak would have never received the fame of its tricentennial celebrityhood.