Today is Saturday, August 19, 2017

Real roots revival

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In late April, Tom Hunter of American Heritage Trees in Lebanon helped schoolchildren plant a two-year-old water oak on the grounds of Ivy Green, the birthplace of Helen Keller, in Tuscumbia, Ala. The sapling replaced a tree that served as a playground for the deaf and blind girl. The tree, which was over 200 years old, was broken apart by a storm last year and had to be cut down. The replacement tree was grown from acorns that Hunter and his wife Phyllis collected at Ivy Green in 2014. Photo courtesy of Matt McKean/(Florence) Times Daily
Phyllis and Tom Hunter stand inside their American Heritage Trees propagation house on the Rice Farm at Riceland near Gladeville. The couple has raised more than 6,000 saplings from seeds they obtained at historic sites including the homes of Helen Keller, George Washington, Robert E. Lee, William Faulkner, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry David Thoreau and Alex Haley. Their non-profit organization now sells the saplings. KEN BECK / The Wilson Post
A Helen Keller water oak sapling inside the American Heritage Trees propagation house.

The effects of hundreds of storms over the decades brought down the historic Helen Keller Water Oak tree last year on the grounds of her home, Ivy Green, in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

The tree, more than 200 years old, was one of the deaf and blind girl's favorite places to play. It was so damaged that the remains were cut down, leaving only a 12-foot-diameter stump.

But all was not lost. In late April, a two-year-old descendant of the original tree, grown at American Heritage Trees near Gladeville, was planted in its place, and six classrooms of second-graders lent helping hands in the joyous occasion.

"They had a big time," said Tom Hunter, who, with his wife Phyllis, operates American Heritage Trees and furnished the replacement tree. "Sue Pilkilton (who runs Ivy Green, the Helen Keller Birthplace) told the children that Helen loved to play in that tree, and she was way up there one day when a big storm came, and her teacher Anne Sullivan (remembered as 'the Miracle Worker') had to climb up and get her down.

"We decided to mention that we'd like to see the tree named. I said, 'Let's name this tree that you all planted.' They picked out a few names, and the consensus was to name it the Anne Sullivan Tree."

(The remarkable Helen Keller, who was born in 1880 and died in 1968, was the first deafblind person to earn a bachelor of arts degrees. She dedicated her life to improving the conditions of blind and the deafblind around the world, lecturing in more than 25 countries on the five major continents. Wherever she appeared, she brought new courage to millions of blind people.)

Seeds from historic roots

Over the past two or three years, the Hunters have been collecting seeds from trees at historic sites. Last fall, their non-profit organization began offering saplings raised from the seeds of those mother trees. These include plants with links to the homes of such revered Americans as George Washington, Robert Frost, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner.

Tom and Phyllis had collected acorns from the Helen Keller Water Oak two years ago.

Said Tom, "When I found out that the tree had come down, I talked with Sue Pilkilton, the executive director of Ivy Green. She knew that we had those legacy trees from that oak so I reassured her we had a direct lineage replacement. We decided to wait until spring and have a replanting.

"Phyllis and I took the strongest seedling from it and nurtured it all winter. It really did great. It was close to 5-feet tall at two years old. That's what we planted. They prepared a site adjacent to where the mother tree was. There was a 12-feet-wide stump where the mother tree was, and about 15 feet away we had this 5-foot offspring. It was a great day."

2nnd graders 'awestruck'

Hunter noted that the second graders had been studying the life of Keller, and that one child from each classroom had been selected to help him put dirt around the tree.

"They were excited, a little awestruck. I told them that for the rest of their lives they would remember this day because that tree would be growing as they grew up, and they had a hand in the continuation of the whole story of Helen Keller and everything she stood for, and every time they drove by that site they would remember they had their fingerprints on history. It was pretty 'wowee' to them," said the tree revivalist.

As for the original tree, Hunter said he told the children "that the tree was about 250 years old. I mentioned that the tree was a sapling when America was a sapling because it was about the same time the United States was born. It saw the Civil War and all the ups and downs of our country's history and probably survived hundreds of storms.

"It had been struck by lightning hundreds of time, and one of those mainline winds last year took it down. It was kind of a hero's journey for that tree. It endured for 250 years. In a way you can't ask for more than that."

Helping fill the gaps in history

He noted that a number of historic trees, many of them more than 200 years old, are beginning to bite the dust.

"They are vulnerable now. They're running their life cycle. Part of what we like about this project is that it not only highlights the principal person the trees are tied to, but this allows some kind of continuity at the site. These trees are symbols of our American heroes.

"Just in the last few years, we lost pin oak at John F. Kennedy's graveside at Arlington National Cemetery. We lost the Christopher Columbus tree, a 500-year-old white oak, in Pennsylvania, and we lost a giant white oak at Fredrick Douglass's house in Washington, D.C.

"There's a long list of historic, significant trees that have gone down. Now they're gone. By having this program and having descendant trees available, it's fulfilling to Phyllis and I to see one line up so that we would have a replacement."

Unique gifts for Mother's, Father's

American Heritage Trees began selling their historic saplings in October and more of them are coming online large enough to sell. The Hunters are beginning to work on the marketing side of things.

They recently got a boost in the arm when Orvis, America's oldest outdoor outfitter, contacted them and asked to be able to include their trees on their web site in conjunction with special and unusual gifts for Mother's Day and Father's Day.

As for additions to their budding tree farm, they have added a second greenhouse, an outdoor grow area and are in the midst of constructing a log house, a replica of the original Rice Cabin, now at Fiddlers Grove, which once stood on their farm, that will serve as an office and meeting space.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at


American Heritage Trees

For more details about these historic trees, go online to Among trees available are the Mark Twain sycamore and Twain burr oak, the George Washington sycamore, the Helen Keller water oak, the Alex Haley crepe myrtle and the Edgar Allen Poe hackberry. Cost is $60 each, plus shipping.

About Helen Keller

The Helen Keller Festival will be held June 20-26 at Spring Park in Tuscumbia, Ala. For more about Keller, go online to or

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