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Main Street oak tree wins state co-championship title

John B. Shanks Jr. has admired, climbed and felt he had a special white oak tree in his yard since he was 8 years old in 1943.
That was the year his parents, John B. and Anna Shanks Sr., moved into the residence at 508 W. Main St. in Jonesborough. The white oak will soon become a co-champion tree in the State of Tennessee.
The oak tree comes with its own genealogy. John’s father worked at the Banking & Trust Building on Main Street. He traced the deeds to the property back to May 5, 1892, when H. C. Jackson, executor of the Estate of A.E. Jackson, conveyed the property to Charles Mason and wife.
The importance of the 1892 deed is that it identifies the white oak tree in the following description after reciting the property contains 1.5 acres: “At A. J. Shipley’s East corner near a white oak tree, thence with his line along a plank fence, North 46 degrees west 21[and a fraction] poles to a stake…”
Area Forester Neal A. White from Greeneville says the reference to the white oak in the deed is of great assistance in establishing the necessary requirements for it to be included in the list of Tennessee historic trees. White and Tom Simpson, Regional Urban Forester from Sevierville, took the tree’s measurements.
Simpson then wrote, “Mr. Shanks’ white oak in Jonesborough was measured on 5/21/15 by Neal White and myself to be a total of 419 points, which makes it a current co-champion tree with a white oak measured in Sequatchie County. Mr. Shanks’ white oak measured 275 inches in circumference (or 22 feet, 9 inches), 112 feet tall, and 129 feet in average crown spread.
“Had we not just recently measured the white oak in Sequatchie County (421 points) then Mr. Shanks’ tree would have been the current state champion. As it is, both his and the Sequatchie white oak will be listed as co-champions.
“The famous Tusculum Oak on the campus of Tusculum College in Greeneville, for comparison, is 409 points. Mr. Shanks’ tree is larger than the Tusculum Oak in all three measurements. However, Mr. Shanks’ tree is quite a few points from the national champion white oak, which was recorded at a whopping 508 points in Maryland.”
Shanks says when he saw the white oak on the Tusculum campus, he knew his tree was larger. “When I saw an article on the Tusculum tree, I decided to revive my effort to have my tree named champion,” he said. “No one knows how old it is.”
The tree could be 500 to 800 years old, and has been referred to as Jonesborough’s oldest resident. In June 2008, Shanks’ white oak was the first tree inducted into the town’s Heritage Tree program. As a Jonesborough Heritage Tree, it is protected and its maintenance is shared with the Town of Jonesborough.
In the 1970s, Jonesborough’s Civic Trust adopted a depiction of the tree that for many years served as the town’s marketing emblem.
The Tennessee Division of Forestry, part of the Department of Agriculture, has been compiling a list of champion trees in the state since 1976. American Forests, in Washington, D.C., keeps the national champion tree list. Tennessee has 219 state champion or co-champion trees representing some 215 different species, according to Simpson.
Generally, only native or naturalized trees qualify as trees that can be measured. Three factors are considered: circumference of the stem in inches at 4.5 feet above the ground, total tree height in feet, and the average crown spread (drip line) in feet. These three measurements are then totaled to come up with a point scale. Each circumference inch is equal to one point, each foot of height is equal to one point, and every 4 feet of spread is equal to one point.
A graduate of the University of Tennessee with a degree in business administration, Shanks worked in the insurance business for a number of years before his retirement. He moved back to his boyhood home with his wife, Arlene, in 1997.
“I played in the tree,” Shanks said. “There were boards up in the tree. As boys (Shanks and his childhood buddies), we would climb up a main limb that extended over the house next door and then climb down another limb and drop off into the neighbor’s yard.”
Late in the 20th century, he first submitted his white oak for state recognition.
“When Mr. Shanks’ white oak was submitted in 1998 and measured that same year, it did not measure as large as the champion white oak at that time, although it was close,” Simpson said. “Since then, the rules for measuring champion trees has changed slightly. The Shanks’ oak gained in size, and his tree now rests firmly in co-champion status.”
Shanks tells the story that when his father purchased the property where the white oak tree is located, the seller, Banker B.P. Roach, wanted a separate price for the tree. Legend has it that the lawn under the tree was a favorite picnic spot of guests at the Chester Inn beginning in the 1790s, including Presidents Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson.
According to Shanks, his father said he wasn’t going to live in the tree and the purchase price of $3,000 for the property did not include any additional purchase money for the white oak tree.
In addition to the co-champion status, Simpson said, “We are nominating it for the Tennessee Landmark & Historic Tree Registry this year. There are currently 37 famous trees listed on that registry across the state. The public can access that list by going to:”
The “famous trees” are a program under the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council. Shanks has provided proof of the mention of his tree in an 1892 deed from Washington County. The Division of Forestry has been trying to tie the tree to the formation of the Town of Jonesborough, based on what Simpson thinks its age is.
He explains: “However, the only documentation we can find is this 1892 property deed, which is good enough to get it nominated as a Landmark Tree. The reason for this is simple: once on the famous tree registry, the tree will be preserved in perpetuity on the register, even should it die. A co-champion tree will only stay on the champion tree listing as long as a larger tree is not found. The Tennessee Urban Forestry Council will vote on the nomination this year and place it on the L&HT Registry in October (the vote is almost a shoo-in to make it). Once the council prints the next edition of the “Trees of Tennessee” book of famous trees and champion trees, then Shanks’ oak would be included in that edition. You can see mention of that book on their website.”
White took photographs of Shanks and the white oak tree last week as part of the process of obtaining recognition of the tree’s co-champion state status. Shanks is now waiting, often times on his side porch near the stately oak, for that official recognition to be made public.