JEFFERSON — The grand bur oak along Highway 26 south of Fort Atkinson provided summer shade, vibrant fall colors and a point of reference for decades.
The tree was removed for highway expansion last May, but its death is bringing new life, and will help make a few dozen wood ducks comfortable, too.
In the coming months, an 8-foot-long, 6,000-pound section of the 155- to 160-year-old tree will be turned into tabletops, candle sconces, lamps, pens and spinning tops. Proceeds from their sale, along with money raised from a poster that shows the tree in all four seasons, will be used to plant trees along the 39-mile Glacial River Trail that runs from Janesville to Watertown.
The sawdust collected last week, when nine 6-inch thick, 200-pound slices were cut from the oak chunk, will be used to fill wood duck houses at Dorothy Carnes Park in the Rose Lake State Natural Area, northwest of Fort Atkinson.
One slice will go to the Hoard Historical Museum in Fort Atkinson, where visitors can get a close-up view and count the rings that began forming in the 1850s, just a few years after Wisconsin went from a territory to a state.
“It was solid from top to bottom, which we didn’t expect,” said Kevin Wiesmann, Jefferson County parks supervisor, who ran the chain saw last week. “This wood is so hard, you’ll see sparks (during the cutting process) coming off it.”
Despite using a Stihl chainsaw with a 36-inch cutting bar, the tree’s girth forced Wiesmann to make cuts from both sides to complete a slice. The cookies, as they’re called, are going to nine area residents who each paid $100. About 75 people had inquired about buying a slice.
“We were just overwhelmed with calls,” said Jane Stanger, administrative secretary at the parks department. “It reached a lot of people and touched them.”
The oak, located just north of the Rock-Jefferson county line, survived droughts, lightning strikes and becoming fuel for a fireplace or wood stove back in the day. The tree was around when Wisconsin troops shipped off to the Civil War and the war in Iraq. It stood along a roadway used by horses and buggies, Model As and Ts, the gas guzzlers of the 1960s and 1970s and, in recent years, gas-electric hybrids.
But the needs of the roadway proved too much, even for the landmark oak. Moving the highway to go around the tree was not an option, said Mark Vesperman, a state Department of Transportation project manager.
“We looked into the possibility,” Vesperman told the Janesville Gazette in April. “But if we moved the road, it impacted more trees, wetlands and more agricultural land.”
Tracy Hegg, a Milton graphic designer, began taking photos of the tree in 2009 on the way to and from work. She had intended to do some sort of art project with her photos. When she learned the tree would come down, she created a poster. So far, the parks department has sold 90 of the $10 posters.
Hegg had been driving by the tree for more than 12 years.
“I made note of the tree because of its beauty and symmetry,” Hegg said on her website. “As an artist, it was an inspiration to drive by it twice a day.”
Robert Schweitzer, 75, is an artist in a different medium. The Jefferson man who taught the hearing-impaired in Detroit and then spent 25 years on the chaplaincy staff at Bethesda Lutheran Home in Watertown, uses a lathe to create projects in a process called wood turning.
Last year, he helped raise more than $600 for the parks department by turning wood from a log cabin that had been on county-purchased land. The two-story cabin has been taken apart and is being restored back to its original state in Wiesmann’s shop. This summer, the cabin will be reassembled back on the county-owned Mason Farm land from which it came.
Some pieces of the white oak timbers weren’t needed, so Schweitzer and other members of the Badger Wood Turners, literally turned them into bowls, round lidded boxes and lamps.
The historic tree that had been along Highway 26 is another intriguing project for Schweitzer, who has been turning since 2000. He’ll be getting a 30- inch-long, 53-inch-wide piece of wood to work with. A silent auction will eventually be held to raise money for the tree planting. Besides bowls and candle sconces, he hopes to make several pens.
“You don’t need much wood to make a pen,” Schweitzer said. “Even though its hard oak, it will turn easily. But you have to have sharp tools, of course.”
Wiesmann’s shop, located in an industrial park on Jefferson’s southwest side, has a lot going on. This is where mowers for parks and county grounds are stored along with groomers for cross country ski trails. In the balcony of the shop hang bags of prairie seeds like purple coneflowers, rosin weed and prairie clove. The seeds, collected last fall, will be redistributed this spring.
And because the cabin was built in the 1850s out of trees that were 50 to 80 years old, that means the Highway 26 oak isn’t even the oldest wood in Wiesmann’s shop. However, the large oak tree likely has more sentimental meaning to most.
“It’s not every day you see a 150-, 160- or 170-year-old tree,” Wiesmann said. “Hopefully, people will be able to appreciate it for a long time.”