A Giant Is Reborn

How a legendary tree that burned three years ago has taken on a new life.

Q: What happened to the remains of The Senator, the ages-old tree that burned down three years ago?

A: Although we mourned the arson-related demise of Big Tree Park’s 3,500-year-old bald cypress, The Senator has come back to life in another form—as a multitude of artworks. They include pens, sculptures, bowls, a picture frame, a bench, and much more. Some of them will be the focus of a museum exhibit about the tree next summer. 

The story of how The Senator’s remains were salvaged is one of creativity and resourcefulness. Because it was hollow—the trunk was only 8 to 10 inches thick—the 120-foot-high tree burned like a chimney, then collapsed. Jim Duby, program manager for Seminole County’s greenways and natural lands division, knew the county should somehow memorialize the tree and, with the help of local sawmill owner/woodworker Bob Hughes, came up with a plan to transform the remains. Three artisans were chosen to receive wood from The Senator—Hughes, who handled extraction of the felled tree, chainsaw artist Mark Rice and wood-turner Jeff Matter. A fourth, Patty Pratt, a California resident who grew up in Central Florida, was given ashes from the tree to use in a glaze for her clay works. Duby says the craftsmen received the wood on the condition that half the works they made with it be given back to the county; the other half they could use to create pieces to sell if they wished, as compensation for their county contributions. 

Hughes, who has reclaimed countless sunken logs or trees toppled by storms, stabilized the wood from The Senator by using epoxy and even charcoal from the tree itself to fill in cracks so it would be suitable to work with. He, in turn, has chosen other artists to craft some of the pieces he was given, including Ted Page, who carved and wood-burned a panel depicting the history of the local logging industry, and Doug Snider, who crafted an owl resembling a Native American artifact found at the bottom of the St. Johns River.

The Senator exhibit will run June 1-Aug. 31 at the Museum of Seminole County History in Sanford. The centerpiece will be a work by Hughes—six pieces of the tree, each about 10 feet tall and mounted on bases in a circle so as to form a “footprint’’ of the giant, arranged so that visitors can walk among them. Some of the exhibit’s works will remain in the museum’s permanent collection while others will find homes in county offices or other buildings.

The Senator’s legacy will live on in other places—in the possession of about 200 average citizens who were awarded, on a first come-first served basis, a small chunk or branch of the tree to treasure through a “Legacy Piece’’ program. 

All the remains are now spoken for—nothing was wasted with the legendary giant, which sprouted in 1500 BC. Hughes, as well as the other artists, sometimes finds it all difficult to comprehend.

“It’s a great responsibility,’’ he says. “As a woodworker, I don’t know what I could ever do in my lifetime that would have the connection to history that this tree did.’’ 

Categories: Community