By Sandy Semans Ross | Outer Banks Voice on October 18, 2021
When the Outer Banks Conservationists purchased an undeveloped lot at 1050 US 64 on Roanoke Island in 2012, many scratched their heads and wondered why.
The nonprofit invests in area cultural sites, such as the Currituck Lighthouse and Island Farm. A lot with just trees on it didn’t seem to fit the mission of the organization.
To understand the reasoning behind the purchase one has to go back all the way to 1960 after Hurricane Donna made history by touching every state from Florida to Maine. Then take a deep dive into the memories of three children who visited the Elizabethan Gardens after Hurricane Donna. The Gardens were formally opened by the Garden Clubs of North Carolina just a month before the devastating storm.
“I was only eight,” recalls Manteo resident John Wilson, one of the founders of the Conservationists. “My neighbors were the Midgettes—and Nancy and Robert were my friends.”
That day, the three of them took a trip to the Elizabethan Gardens and the Lost Colony to look at the damage from Hurricane Donna. Robert’s father was Louis Midgette, the supervisor of the Gardens. Wilson said he vividly remembers the horticulturist working on the old living oak tree at the Gardens that day and it being said that – under the right conditions – live oaks could live up to 1,200 years. The first four hundred years were for growth, the second were for enjoying life, and the last four hundred were for slowly dying. Nancy and Robert also remember the conversation.
“I remember watching the tree surgeon fill some of the cavities in the tree with a substance that looked like tar,” Robert Midgette said. “I remember hearing that the tree surgeon was sure that the old oak was there when the first colonist arrived and, as a young boy, I thought that was a really cool thing!”
The horticulturist was Dr. Fred Cochran from the University of North Carolina. He visited the site after being told that there were a number of trees down on the property. He age-tested the ancient live oak tree through a core sample that revealed it was a sapling in 1585, when the Elizabethan colonists first arrived on Roanoke Island.
Then, according to a story based on Gardens’ records and provided by Executive Director Carl Curnutte, Cochran went above and beyond to save the tree.
“Cochran had old airplane wire sent over to support the limbs. Next, they put copper tubing inside the trunk and filled it with cement they etched to look like blocks. This, they hoped, would help it heal. But it didn’t. Garden club member Helen Miller voiced concern. She wanted to save the tree and donated for the cause. Hopes were pinned [on] a new chemical therapy [that] could turn the page,” notes the Gardens’ story.
Miller’s $600 investment in the tree paid off and the tree was saved.
What does this have to do with the Outer Banks Conservationist purchasing the undeveloped lot?
More than five decades after Wilson’s memorable visit to the Gardens, his conversations with Cochran stuck with him, as did the girth of the tree, which is 13 feet in circumference.
The tree on the lot the conservationists purchased is 16.02 feet, thus making it older and even more ancient. If the core sample taken of the Gardens’ tree showed that it was close to 500 years old, then Wilson, one of the founders of the Conservationists, knew that the tree that they purchased was at least another 100 years older.
Locals say that the tree in the Gardens was used by colonists to hang carcasses and, later when the road went around it, the limbs were used to hoist the engines out of vehicles to allow repairs. The tree on the lot purchased by the Outer Banks Conservationists would have been considerably larger in 1587. It also could have been important to the local Native Americans.
The Roanoke tribes were a Carolina Algonquian-speaking people whose territory comprised present-day Dare County, Roanoke Island and part of the mainland at the time of English exploration and colonization. Native American children could have used the tree for climbing or their fathers could have hung deer or other wildlife from the tree. Native American couples could have courted under it. Children might have played in or around it.
After colonists became permanent, Native American and English-speaking children could have used the tree as a fort or other plaything. In the early 1700s, it might have been used as a sentry post during the Tuscarora War. Later, during the Civil War, children from the Freedmen’s Colony could have been given their lessons under the billowing branches.
Live oaks were once commonplace in coastal regions of the southeast, but ship building caused many to be cut to use for boats. The oak is so hard that it is thought that the USS Constitution got its nickname, “Old Ironsides,” because cannon balls bounced off the oak-built frigate.
Fifty-five years after Hurricane Donna, in 2015, the Gardens’ ancient oak tree was added to the membership roster of the Live Oak Society. The society’s membership is limited to live oaks only and the only human member is the chairman of the Louisiana Garden Club Federation who is responsible for listing trees requesting membership.
The society was founded in 1934 by Dr. Edwin Lewis Stephens, president of the Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). The only requirement for becoming a member is that the live oak must have a trunk circumference of eight feet or greater, measured 4.5 feet above ground. The tree with the largest girth is the president of the society.
The Outer Banks Conservationists have listed the tree on the lot they purchased with the society, along with trees on Island Farm and one on airport owned trailer park. The name chosen for the latest tree in their inventory is Khoury for the tree purchased at 1050 US 64/264, named for late attorney and Conservationists Board Member Daniel Khoury.
Khoury is the largest known live oak on Roanoke Island. There also are trees in Kitty Hawk and at Manns Harbor that now are society members as well.