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Big Tree Champions
By Francis “Champ” Zumbrun, Kathy Kronner and Ethan Kearns

White Walnut (Butternut) (National Champion) Girth 12 ft. 6 in.

The roots of the Big Tree Champion contest are planted in Maryland, for it all started in “the Old Line State.”

Fred W. Besley, Maryland’s first State Forester, is the father of the National Big Tree Champion Contest. He served as State Forester during the period of 1906-1942.

In his booklet, Big Tree Champions of Maryland: A Record of the Largest Trees of the Principal Species, printed in 1956, Besley discussed the birth of the Big Tree Contest. He wrote that the forests of Maryland were rich in different kinds of trees, “probably more than 250 native tree species, and there was a universal interest in notable trees.” Because of this, Besley was inspired “to organize a Big Tree program in which would be collected measurements and photographs of the distinguished trees of Maryland.” It appears that until 1925, Besley worked alone on this project.

“By 1925, the interest in large trees and noted trees had so increased,” Besley wrote, “that the Maryland Forestry Association sponsored a state-wide Big Tree Champion contest. Prizes were offered, rules were adopted, and wide publicity were given to secure as many entries as possible. Each tree species was classified separately so that species like dogwood and persimmon would not have to compete with such larger trees as oaks and elms.”

Big Tree Book - 1937 - Black Walnut (National Champion) Girth 20'4 in.Besley developed the method of measuring big trees that was adopted by the American Forestry Association, with only some slight modifications. Besley wrote about this: “At this time [early 1900’s] there were no standard measurements of trees, so it was necessary to draw up standards to insure fair comparisons. The author devised the following standards. To qualify as a tree, the specimen must have a single stem or trunk for at least 4 ½ feet above the ground level and a total height of 15 feet.” Besley’s method took three important measurements involving the trunk circumference, crown spread, and height of a tree.

In the first state-wide Maryland Big Tree Champion Contest of 1925, Besley notes that 450 entries were received. Besley acted as “umpire in measuring those [trees that] appeared to be competitors in the prize winning class.” After all was said and done, the first Maryland Big Tree Champion list contained 155 species, among them the Wye Oak, the largest white oak ever recorded. In 1937, this list was revised and published.

Fallen Wye Oak with sign, coutesy of Carolyn WatsonWe learn in the book, Wye Oak: The History of a Great Tree by Dickson J. Preston, Fred W. Besley was behind the efforts to expand the Maryland Big Tree Contest to a national level. Preston writes the following: “…in 1940, he [Besley] suggested to the American Forestry Association (of which he was by now a senior member of the board) a means of putting the Wye Oak and other declared [Maryland] national champions to the test. His proposal was a national contest along the lines he had been conducting in Maryland. Readers of American Forests…would be invited to send in measurements of trees they thought should be national champions, and the winner would be chosen by the Besley system of measurement.”

One of the longest reigning State champions and a National Champion the Wye Oak (Quercus alba) that was over four hundred year old at the time of it’s death. The Wye Oak grew near Wye Mills in northern Talbot County, Maryland. A State Park was formed around this giant old oak. Local arborists spent considerable efforts preserving the Wye Oak during its lifetime. The trunk was filled with cement and the heavy branches were cabled in efforts to keep the tree whole and alive. Unfortunately, the tree fell in a spring storm in June of 2002 and the search was on to find the next champion white oak in Maryland. The title went to a tree in Anne Arundel County while the current National Champion is in Virginia.

The Liberty Tree on the grounds of St. Johns College in AnnapolisOther Maryland Trees noted for their longevity and historical presence include the Liberty Tree located in Annapolis at St. John’s College. It was a tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), which was estimated to be approximately 400 years old. In colonial times the Sons of Liberty met under this tree. The Liberty Tree held a prominent spot on the front lawn of the college where many large official gatherings took place. Lafayette attended an event honoring him on the collage green in 1824. The first Methodist sermon was preached under it in 1772. The tree was so famous that the Daughters of the American Revolution put up a fence to protect it from souvenir hunters who would cut away pieces to take home. Though treated often with current acceptable treatments, the Liberty health deteriorated and Arborists could not save it after Hurricane Floyd did more damage in September of 1999. A ceremony celebrating its life was held and the tree was taken down.

Located in Manchester in Carroll County, Maryland is the Lutheran White Oak. This tree was large enough to be considered a landmark when in 1758 King George III gave a charter to build a church near this white oak. Believed to be 320 years old the tree still stands at Immanuel Evangelical Episcopal Church and is reported to be healthy.

The Burnside Sycamore (Plantanus occidentalis), or Witness Tree was growing along the Antietam Creek during the battle where 22,000 Americans lost their lives on September 17, 1862. Pictures taken days after the fight show the young tree still standing. This tree is located in the National Park Service’s Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg in Washington County. It lost several large limbs in August of 2003 and did some damage to the famous bridge it grew next to, but they both are still standing today. Antietam sycamores can be purchased from American Forests Historic Tree Nursery.

In Elkton, Maryland in Cecil County is the Holly Hall Oak. It is a White Oak, which is believed to be over 437 years old. The tree grew along Route 40 and came to prominence in the late seventies when a developer purchased the land to build a shopping Mall. The developers announced that they would deed the tree to the town for preservation, but that was never done. The tree is still alive but according to Maryland DNR Forest Service Cecil County Forester, it “is in poor condition, many limbs have been removed and there is dieback in the crown and severe decay”.

The Hoover Sycamore is another famous old tree in Carroll County. President Herbert C. Hoover visited his family home near Linwood, where he pointed out the large tree planted by his forefather Andrew Hoover about 1740. This tree is reported to be looking very well.

Trees are very beneficial anywhere they grow, whether it’s in your yard, a public park or near the roadway, the benefits are numerous. They provide: oxygen, energy savings, a home for many wildlife species, soil retention, watershed protection, tourism, aesthetics, and many more. Many people work with trees, from public service agencies to certified arborists, to nurserymen. We should all try to take care of our trees. Trees will not live forever, but we can help them by taking some responsibilities to provide for their health and long life, proper tree care, especially on our older trees could give us some wonderful tree champions.

So, when you locate and nominate a big tree candidate, you are carrying on a legacy started here in Maryland by Fred W. Besley. Indeed, it is a noble cause, the same as announced in the first National Big Tree Champion contest held in 1940: “…to locate ‘the largest living specimens of American trees and focus attention on the benefits of conserving these cherished landmarks.’”

Wye Oak Art Gallery

The Wye Oak Gallery
The Quiet Giant, An Online Art Exhibition

New artists have recently been added to this electronic exhibition. 
Take a look at what they have created from pieces of the fabled Wye Oak Tree.

More informational resources about the Wye Oak:


Photographs (top to bottom):
White Walnut (Butternut) (National Champion) Girth 12 ft. 6 in., Big Tree Book

Black Walnut (National Champion) Girth 20 ft. 4 in., Big Tree Book

Fallen Wye Oak with Sign, June 2002, courtesy of Carolyn Watson

Tulip Poplar - "The Liberty Tree" - (National Champion) Girth 26 ft. 7 in. , Big Tree Book

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