The Ottumwa Courier

November 18, 2013

Civil War soldier standing tall in Ottumwa Cemetery

By JOSH VARDAMAN
Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA—There is a Civil War soldier in the Ottumwa Cemetery, but he isn’t 6 feet underground. In fact, he is about 10 feet over.

The old oak tree that used to stand in the cemetery got infected by oak wilt, a fungus that quickly kills oak trees, and city officials decided it needed to come down to try and save the other oak trees beside it. However, the old tree was too much of a landmark to be taken down completely and tossed into a wood chipper.

According to Gene Rathje, Director of the Ottumwa Parks Department, there were 110-120 rings that could be counted inside the tree, making it somewhere around 220 years old. Its age means it was in its prime when the American Civil War would have taken place, so it could have seen many soldiers like the one it now resembles.

The Ottumwa Area Arts Council facilitated the project, and they received funding through the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation to cover the $5,000 cost of the project.

“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, in a previous interview before the project’s completion.

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.

Chainsaw sculptor Gary Keenan, of Des Moines, put the finishing touches on the soldier that he has spent the past few weeks carving out of a stump of one of the trees that was said to be among the oldest in the city.

Keenan mostly does residential trees, he said at the start of the project. Most of what he does is of wildlife, but sometimes he gets to do something different, like a soldier. He has also carved fairies and the leprechaun mascot for the University of Notre Dame, among various other things, in his 13 years of service.

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