One of Riverside’s most important trees is dying. 

The bur oak has stood at the eastern end of Guthrie Park in downtown Riverside for more than a century and serves a critical purpose — it is one of the trees civic organizations use as an anchor to hang banners announcing local events.

But, throughout the summer, it became increasingly clear that the tree was in some sort of danger, dropping its leaves late in the summer.

In short, its days as a sign post are over. But can it serve another purpose? That’s what Village Forester Michael Collins is investigating.

Collins has been given the go-ahead by Village Manager Jessica Frances to explore transforming the doomed tree into a carving that can be used to mark Guthrie Park as the epicenter of “Arboretum Riverside.”

The village last month received its official designation as an arboretum by Arbnet, an international consortium of arboreta working to, according to its website, “advance the planting and conservation of trees.”

Collins said he first became aware of carvings made from dead trees near Montrose Beach in Chicago. In 2014, the Chicago Park District, in collaboration with Chicago Sculpture International, launched the Chicago Tree Project to transform dying trees in the city’s parks into works of art.

In addition, Collins ran into another example, right here in Riverside. About five years ago, Bernard and Ellie Babka had an artist carve a 70-year-old tree in their yard on Lawton Road.

The Babkas had met chainsaw artist Scott Cochrane at a Riverside Holiday Stroll and bought a bear from him to display in their backyard.

“When our [70]-year-old pine started leaning toward the house, we decided it was time to take it down,’ said Bernard Babka.

But they didn’t want to lose the tree completely and called Cochrane to see if he could help. The resulting design references the Babkas’ long association with the Sokol organization — a falcon and the Sokol symbol.

“It’s a lasting tribute to something that’s been in place for a long time,” Ellie Babka said.

Collins reached out to the Babkas for contact information. He also reached out to the Chicago Park District.

“The big decision point is going to be finding an artist,” said Collins. “We’re looking to leave the trunk of the tree, but the percentage of it I’m not sure. It depends on cost, too.”

It’s also unclear whether the tree is suitable for carving. While initial inspections of the tree seem to indicate it’s solid structurally, Collins said he won’t know for sure until someone starts peeling back the bark. He also noted that the trunk of the bur oak is curved, so that could be a factor in the final decision.

“I’m trying to make lemonade out of lemons and create a designation for the arboretum,” Collins said, “to at least make it more obvious where the location is.

“We’re very much in uncharted territory here.”

One thing that is certain, however, is that event banners won’t be hung between trees in Guthrie Park any longer.

Instead, the village is purchasing removable metal posts that can be installed at both Guthrie Park and Centennial Park in downtown Riverside to hang banners in the future.

Frances said the posts are on order and could be installed by the end of the year. 

Tree planting to dedicate Riverside as arboretum

Riverside will officially mark its designation as an arboretum at a ceremony planned for Thursday, Oct. 22 at 4:30 p.m. in Guthrie Park, which is located in downtown Riverside at Bloomingbank and Riverside roads.

While the entire village was designated an arboretum by Arbnet, an international community of arboreta, Guthrie Park is where the village is focusing its education efforts. 

At the ceremony, Village Forester Michael Collins will plant a black oak, a rare species, donated to the village by longtime resident Ted Smith, who served for many years on the Riverside Preservation Commission.

According to Collins, the black oak does well in sandy soils, which will serve it well since Riverside’s sandy soil is due to the fact that the village was once at the edge of Lake Chicago, a pre-glacial lake that predated Lake Michigan.

There are just a handful of black oaks in Riverside’s collection, said Collins, though one of them is in Guthrie Park — directly south of the bur oak that serves as the southern sign post for civic event banners.

The dedication event will also celebrate “Oaktober.” Through the lobby efforts of the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, Gov. Bruce Rauner has declared October  “Oak Awareness Month” in Illinois.

According to Collins, a 2012 study showed that there’s very little oak regeneration in Illinois.

“Formerly, it was a dominant species,” Collins said, “so this is promoting oak planting.”

People who attend the dedication will receive a map of the trees in Guthrie Park for self-guided tours and Collins will be on hand to answer any questions. Refreshments will follow at the Riverside Public Library, which is across the street from the park at 1 Burling Road.

—Bob Uphues

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