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Column: Empty at first, Worthington became town of trees

WORTHINGTON -- In the beginning there were no trees. Not many, anyway. A few burr oaks along some of the lakes. Plum trees along river banks. Again and again the explorers, the pioneers, described southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa as a treeless prairie. This was an expanse where nature did not favor trees.

Be that as it may, some of the pioneers were persuaded this land was apple land. Eric Paul. Horace Ludlow. Charles Sundberg. The Nystrom brothers somewhat later. These men proved a point. They planted orchards; apple trees thrived. Ludlow's orchard on Lake Okabena's south shore produced the Okabena apple which, at the turn of the 20th century, was one of the most popular varieties in America. There is a small monument near the lake shore that recalls those great trees.

Many early tree planters favored cottonwood trees, for two reasons. Cottonwoods grow fast, and they cast a broad shadow. The aim was to get trees and shade as quickly as possible. Later generations began to slander cottonwoods. A cottonwood tree is not very sturdy, they said. It will crash on your house in a storm. Cottonwoods themselves proved the charges false. I checked the monster cottonwood behind the house at 612 Burlington Ave., a tree known to be more than 100 years old. It seemed to ask, "Ice? What ice?"

Area residents keep their eyes on trees. Half-a-century gone by, Dr. E.A. Kilbride noted black birds were swarming night by night in a trio of trees along the boulevard in front of his house on Smith Avenue. Some neighbors said the sidewalk was disgusting. Dr. Kilbride said it was a health hazard. The Worthington Fire Department came out just at sunset one evening. Firefighters sprayed the boulevard trees with water under high pressure from fire hoses. The birds were discouraged. They left town.

In a later time -- oh, two decades gone by -- there was an autumn when the area was overrun, nearly, by boxelder bugs. There were (probably) tens of thousands of the creatures in swarms on the sides of some houses and in clusters on trees. Inevitably, some bugs found their way into houses. They would cling to people's hair and clothing.

Although the bugs favor boxelder trees, boxelder trees have nothing to do with boxelder bugs spawning or flourishing. Boxelder bugs are also found on other trees.

No matter. One Worthington woman was so disgusted by boxelder bugs that she had a decades-old boxelder tree on her property cut down and hauled away.

The value residents from an earlier era placed on trees is suggested by the original cement sidewalk laid along the 1300 block of Third Avenue. There was a large tree almost directly in the line of the proposed walk. When the cement was poured the tree was left untouched. The walk at that juncture was narrowed to half-width. People on the sidewalk passed the tree in single file.

A Worthington woman told a story that I believe has been told other places. The woman was walking along a sidewalk with her young son. A stiff wind was blowing. The woman noted the boy had lagged behind, and she turned to see he was standing on the sidewalk kicking the trunk of a boulevard tree. He was weary of the wind, and he believed it was caused by the trees swaying overhead.

Through the earliest years, many trees served as prairie landmarks. Lucy Bertrand told a tree story from the time in 1897 when her family moved to a farm five miles north of Wilmont, before there even was a Wilmont.

"There were mighty few trees," Lucy remembered. "They had what they called tree claims. You would guarantee to plant 10 acres of trees and then you could get a claim on a quarter-section. But there weren't many trees in those days.

"There was a tree on Dad's place. A lone tree. I suppose a bird had dropped a seed or something. When the Wisconsin people (relatives) would come out, they said they always drove until they saw that tree and then they knew where they were."

Worthington now faces the prospect of losing up to 5,000 of its ice-broken trees. It's a shame.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.