Magnificence on High

by Jonathan Wright
Photo by Greg Balzell

“To the brave old oak tree, cheers! Remember, the mighty oak from a small acorn grows.”

Though precious little remains of the land that drew Tonti, La Salle and other great explorers to Peoria more than 300 years ago, at least one natural wonder still stands tall. The giant oak tree on High Street—“The Sentinel of the Bluff”—is among the region’s most beloved attractions, enjoyed by Peorians for generations. At 50 feet high, with a diameter of nearly 55 inches at its base and a spread of 110 feet, the great burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa) looms large and majestic, its limbs outstretched in a welcoming embrace, watching over the Illinois River Valley for hundreds of years.

A Landmark Preserved
The first known reference to the giant oak came in the 1750s—decades before the American Revolution—in a report sent home by European surveyors. More than a century later, Dr. E.H. and Maud Bradley, who lived next to the tree in a three-story red-brick Victorian house (now gone), purchased the land on which it stands. The Bradleys later bought an adjacent lot and razed the house so the great tree’s roots could grow free and undisturbed.

When Maud Bradley passed away in 1968, she left a final request: that the tree be saved. This kicked off a three-year effort to preserve the great burr oak. Peoria City Beautiful (now Keep Peoria Beautiful) led this community effort, raising funds to match a HUD grant that enabled the Peoria Park District to purchase the tree and adjoining grounds. On September 6, 1971, a dedication ceremony was held, and three years later, it was officially named Giant Oak Park.

Calibrating History
But just how old is Peoria’s oldest tree? According to the Peoria Park District website, it “cannot be said for certain, but at least since 1835.” That’s the most conservative estimate; more commonly cited is a range of 200 to 300 years. But if the story of the European surveyors is accurate, it implies the tree would have already grown to a considerable size by the mid-1700s.

In 1976, the oak was designated a “bicentennial tree” for having lived during the American Revolutionary period. Just 15 years later, in 1991, it was proclaimed a “tricentennial tree,” taking us back further still. In addition, a plaque at the site suggests the mighty oak first took root “circa 1499,” while a 2008 Peoria Journal Star article speculates it may have been standing when Columbus sailed to America in 1492.

“Years ago, when we took out some dead limbs, I counted rings on some of the smaller limbs and it was like 175 on one limb,” said Tim Varvil, then of the Peoria Park District, in the Journal Star piece. “To me, it signifies that it’s older than a lot of people think.”

That’s certainly possible, as it’s not uncommon for a giant burr oak to live 500 years—or even longer. But “until the day the tree falls and its rings are counted,” the article explains, “no one can state a definitive age.” a&s

Special thanks to Linda Aylward at Bradley University’s Special Collections Center for her research. Tim Varvil quotes from Ryan Ori’s article in the Peoria Journal Star, November 7, 2008. Frank Hanbury, Jr.’s quotes from Marie Magenheimer’s article in the Journal Star, September 10, 1978.