The Ottumwa Courier

October 28, 2013

Oak tree transforming into soldier

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — The oak tree that stood for centuries just off North Court Street in Ottumwa Cemetery has surely seen plenty of excitement in its day. However, not even this glorious tree could escape the harshness of Mother Nature.

The tree was infected with oak wilt, a fungus that quickly kills oak trees, and there was no choice but to cut it down to ensure the safety of other trees. But it is much too historic to be taken down completely, so city officials decided to leave the stump and have it carved into something meaningful from some point in its life.

Gene Rathje, director of the Ottumwa Parks Department, said he was able to count somewhere between 110-120 rings from what was cut off the tree, although the rings were not very defined. His best estimate is that the tree is somewhere around 220 years old.

With the permission and support of the Ottumwa Cemetery Board, it was decided the tree would be carved into a solider from the Civil War. The tree is old enough that it would have stood when the war was taking place, and it is just a few yards away from the portion of the cemetery dedicated to Civil War soldiers.

The Ottumwa Area Arts Council decided to help facilitate the project after they were approached with the idea by City Councilman John Richards. They applied and received funding from the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation totaling $5,000 to cover its entire cost.

The arts council got involved with the project because it is a way for them to promote art in the area, and the soldier will be a great link with their sculpture display at the Bridge View Center.

“This gives us the opportunity to place another permanent public art display in our community,” said Kim Hellige, president of the Ottumwa Area Arts Council.

Chainsaw sculptor Gary Keenan, of Des Moines, was brought on to carve the stump into a solider. Keenan said he mostly does residential trees, and most of the trees he’s carved in his 13 years of business have been wildlife, though he sometimes gets asked to do other things.

The weather will greatly impact how long the project will take. According to Keenan, he works until it gets too cold for him to go outside, so as long as the rain stays away he will be carving.

“[The tree] won’t look like much for a few days,” he said. “It will take about a week to finish.”

According to Hellige, the tree was such an iconic part of the cemetery that they had to find some way to memorialize it. Having it carved will help show the artistic side of Ottumwa and will help memorialize the tree and soldiers it represents.

So when you see a Civil War soldier in Ottumwa Cemetery in the next few weeks, it isn’t a Halloween costume. It’s a 220-year-old oak tree.

— To see reporter Josh Vardaman's Twitter feed, go to @CourierJosh