A Tree that Witnessed History

July 1, 2021, Dr. Steven Murphree, President Sam Davis Memorial Association

There are many mature trees on the campus of the Historic Sam Davis Home and Plantation, many that are well over 100 years old. Visitors to this historic site are attracted to the stately tulip or yellow poplars along slave cabin row, the many southern magnolia trees with their large white, lemony-smelling summer blossoms, the black walnut with a “portal through time” that summer camp children can climb through with a little help, and the massive September elm at the corner of the Davis family cemetery that has been measured towards being named the largest in the state.

These and representatives of 30 other tree species constitute the Sam Davis Home Arboretum that was dedicated at a Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce event at the site on September 10, 2015 following the approval of the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council.

However, a less noticeable tree, a white oak, has, since the site opened for tours in 1930, been dear to Sam Davis Home staff as well as the trustees and directors of the Sam Davis Memorial Association (SDMA). Dwarfed by a massive white oak a few feet away and still standing next to the most famous rock at the site that bears a commemorative plaque placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1932, is the historic Sam Davis White Oak.

Though this famous tree lost most of its highest branches during the windstorm in the summer of 2020, its most important limb, the one to which Sam Davis tied his horse during his last visit home on the evening of November 14, 1863, remains. Many a middle Tennessee schoolchild, after learning the significance of that limb from a site interpreter, has swung from that limb, including SDMA Trustee and Rutherford County Historical Society Vice-President Pettus Read. Unfortunately, the limb is too high to be easily reached for a good swing today. Rockvale arborist Jim Reynolds, who has done tree work at the Sam Davis Home, once trimmed two dead limbs from the Sam Davis White Oak for free, then took photographs of it to remember his contribution to the tree’s maintenance.

The UDC plaque reads: “In the shadow of this great rock Sam Davis hid his horse fastened to a swinging limb of this old oak on the night of his last visit home just before he was captured Nov. 19, 1863” – erected by Nashville Chapter No. 1, United Daughters of the Confederacy, 1932.

In recent years this author was contacted by Phyllis and Tom Hunter of American Heritage Trees in Lebanon, Tennessee. They had heard of the Sam Davis White Oak and expressed their desire to partner with the Historic Sam Davis Home and Plantation to propagate offspring from our famous tree and make them available to anyone who wanted to plant them. After this author collected acorns during two Octobers and delivered them to the Hunters, the progeny of the Sam Davis White Oak are available for purchase/shipping. Nearly every SDMA Director and Trustee now proudly is growing one of the trees at their homes. Readers can find out more about American Heritage Trees, and view a large selection of other threes that have witnessed history at historic sites in the United States at www.americanheritagetrees.org. The Sam Davis White Oak has recently been nominated to be added to the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council’s Landmark, Historic and Heritage Tree Registry. The TUFC states that “a Historic Tree has been a direct witness to a historic event or cultural movement significant nationally, regionally, or within the state and confirmed to date to that time.”

Members of the Rutherford County Historical Society are encouraged to visit the Historic Sam Davis Home and Plantation to see the Sam Davis White Oak. It is located to the left of the drive as it proceeds to the west of the historic house. Visitors can also ask ask for a copy of a map to the Sam Davis Home Arboretum as well as a sheet with QR codes for some of the trees that can be scanned by phones to hear musicians sing songs and tell narratives about them. This was made possible by the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee’s “If Trees Could Sing” project.

In conclusion, readers will be familiar with Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax and the “UNLESS” sign the Lorax references. We should consider both the trees of history at the Historic Sam Davis Home and the need to preserve history at all of our historic sites for future generations when we recall the answer the Lorax gave when asked about his sign – “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot. Nothing is going to get better …it’s not.”

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