This old oak

Monday, July 24, 2006
Ron Ellis and his grandson Jacob Ellis, 8, stood next to the base of a massive Shumard oak tree that towered over the drive to Ellis' home outside Anna, Ill. The tree is the largest oak tree of any kind in the state of Illinois, standing 95 feet high, with its branches reaching 95 feet in width and its trunk with a circumference of 27 feet, 8 inches. (Aaron Eisenhauer)

An Anna, Ill., tree has been added to a national register of big trees.

Anna, Ill. -- An enormous oak tree sticks out from the others that line Ron and Maxine Ellis' driveway in Anna.

Roots from the 96-foot tall Shumard oak are bigger than several trees surrounding it.

On Sunday, Ron Ellis watched as his 8-year-old grandson, Jacob Ellis, attempted to climb the base of the tree. "I don't think I can do it," Jacob Ellis said.

The approximately 250-year-old tree has been named the biggest Shumard oak tree in North America. The spring 2006 edition of American Forests lists the Ellis' oak tree on its National Register of Big Trees.

When asked if he worries about the possibility of the tree falling down in a storm, Ron Ellis laughed. "Eventually it probably will, but I'm not too worried," he said. "It's been here awhile."

Ron Ellis said it's an honor to own a nationally recognized tree. But the reward is just as great for Larry Mahan, who nominated the tree to the list.

Mahan, of Palmyra, Ill., has traveled across Illinois for more than 10 years searching for the biggest trees in the state. He's been credited with finding 28 different species of the biggest trees in Illinois -- 18 of which are the current champions on the Illinois Department of Natural Resource's big tree list.

The Ellis oak tree is the first Mahan has nominated that was placed on the national list. The National Register of Big Trees recognized 119 new champion trees during 2006. More than 850 species of trees are on the list, including 76 species of oak.

The national register ranks trees by adding together three different measurements -- the height in feet, the circumference in inches and one-fourth of the spread, or width from the furthest two leaves, in feet. The Ellis shumard oak scored 452 points -- a 332-inch circumference, 96-feet tall and a 96-foot spread.

As a child living in central Illinois, Mahan was intrigued with trees that towered over the others. "There was always something about them that fascinated me," he said. "I would walk for miles around my house to look for big trees."

Years later, in the late-'90s, Mahan began searching for the biggest trees across the state. He wrote a book, "In Search of Large Trees," and started receiving hundreds of phone calls. "People from all over called to tell me about their trees," he said.

After several years, Mahan had seen about 4,000 of the biggest trees in the state -- one included a pecan tree in Anna, Ill. The pecan tree was recognized as the biggest of its kind in Illinois, and word of its recognition spread throughout the small southern Illinois town.

"That's when I got the call about the Ellis oak tree. I was told it was a large tree," Mahan said. "But what's large to one person might not be large to another."

When Mahan made the trip to the Ellis home, he was surprised at how big the tree was. "It would take about five or six men, holding hands, to completely circle that tree. It's huge," he said.

And Ron Ellis agrees. But what's even more special to him is the length of time the oak tree's been a part of his family history. "My wife and I have lived here for over 40 years, and before that, her family lived here. That tree's always been big," he said.

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