Courthouse restoration possible threat to aged execution tree

By JEANNE WILLIAMS

CAMERON -- Old Ben Milam could possibly have tied his horse to this tree.

It is highly likely this aging majestic oak was a green youngster in the early days of Texas, shading its little corner of the world that eventually became downtown Cameron.

Today Milam County's lofty "execution oak," the tree upon which frontier law was dispensed through public hangings or rare instances of vigilante mobs, swings passively in the balance of life and death.

Surviving centuries of natural enemies, and Texas' weather extremes, restoration of the county's circa-1892 courthouse could impose an ironic twist to its future. The stress of construction, or "construction blight" could drop the ax on the hanging tree.

"The old Post Oak tree is real sick and probably dying," said Dr. Frank Summers, Milam County judge and a layman horticulturist. "I would estimate it's 250-300 years old. It was there long before the courthouse was built. It looks to be in very bad shape and odds are it will probably die in a few years."

Documented by rare, vintage courthouse photos, the hanging tree was to have been replaced by a hanging tower in the 1895 jail, said Milam County Historical Museum Curator Charles King.

Since hangings were intended as public proceedings, the hanging tower could not be used, he said. Thus, the tree stood stoutly for executions until the state assumed responsibility of court-ordered death penalties, King said.

Through the museum's archives, historians can view rare sepia images of the courthouse and its "Tree of Justice" from various interludes of history. In these photographs, the Courthouse Square is encircled at various times by either covered wagons, horses tied to hitching posts, or motor vehicles from the 1920, '30s and '40s to more modern times.

The photos also document the growth of other courthouse plantings, King said.

The $3.6 million restoration project initiated through a $2.9 million Texas Historical Commission grant, does not fund landscaping, but the agency requires that historical trees be protected, said Sharon Fleming, THC architect.

"We recognize that this is a very significant resource," Ms. Fleming said.

Though none share the ominous past of the execution oak, all trees on the Courthouse Square are considered historical in their own right, said Summers.

Historical edifices, such as the Confederate Soldiers Memorial, Veteran's Memorial, historical markers, the bell, and trees, ranging from pecans planted by a county agent of past tenure, to a magnolia, a sycamore and others, all were documented on cartographic charts for the master plan, said H. Glenn Reed, project architect for The Williams Co. in Austin.

Foundation landscaping shrubs, such as crape myrtle, will be removed for the excavation and waterproofing of the building, Summers said.

Architects perceive that excavation will be far enough away from the trees to not cause any root damage, Summers said.

"That was one of the concerns about a downward ramp, any amount of excavation taking place would be going right down by some of the big trees," Summers said. "The trees have tremendously large root systems, going out twice as far away from the base of the tree as the base goes out."

While added stress "would be detrimental to any of those trees," the county's hanging tree faces the probability of dying of old age, Summers said.

Growing in its long life to an impressive height with its crown almost as high as the 94-foot tall domed courthouse, and a 30-inch trunk, the tree may have had to fight for survival in its pre-courthouse days, but when civilization came into its life, it likely was cared for by courthouse custodians, Summers said.

County officials can only guess at whether the old oak qualifies as a Methuselah among trees, and will have to wait for its death to get it the story of its life.

"The only true way to tell their age is to cut them down and count the rings," Summers said.