Note from the Chronicler: This is the latest dive into history of the Friendship Oak, the leafy giant recovering (hopefully) from serious injury.
If trees could talk, the Friendship Oak could offer insight into Mississippi Coast development, from Native Americans fishing to warships, radishes and the importance of educating women.
The impossible happened 81 years ago when a famous journalist, author and photographer named Bob Davis conversed with the venerable Live oak that resides in Long Beach. We know that to be true because in his 1936 book, “People, People Everywhere: Footprints of a Wanderer,” Davis devoted a chapter to his Friendship interview.
In intervening decades, bits of that conversation appeared in promotional literature and history books, including a Bell South phone book with a magnificent cover shot of the tree.
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Davis and Dr. Richard G. Cox, president of Gulf Park College for Woman, formed a friendly acquaintanceship during the writer’s Coast visit. After the book was published, Cox printed the Friendship chapter in pamphlet form to gift to Gulf Park visitors.
The ravages of time have relegated physical evidence of the book to the dustbins of memory. I have located a few excerpts but never the entire chapter, so I searched for a sale copy of the book. No luck.
Next, I turned to researchers at Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Amazingly, a week later a librarian e-mailed me the chapter. I thanked her for her speed and explained my goal is to keep the iconic tree’s history in the forefront so it might live another 100 years on our collective will.
I could write reams about Davis, aka Robert Hobart Davis, the Nevada native who died in 1942 as a respected world observer. His widely read column, “Bob Davis Reveals” appeared in the prestigious New York Sun for years, and that is what led him here.
“From kings to kibitzers, geniuses to gunman, intellectuals to imbeciles, and so on down the whole line of mortals,” Davis wrote in the opening of his Friendship chapter, “I have drifted seeking a line, a phrase, a page that might bring to the stay-at-homes some of the glamour and interest that exist in the far places.”
Eyebrows might raise from a few Davis statements, but his imaginative conversation is as extraordinary as Friendship Oak itself. Chapter 69 is titled “Autobiography of a Tree.”
The Davis interview
“Recently, in Gulfport, Mississippi, on the campus of the Gulf Park College for girls, I paused and sat down in the shade of a tree so magnificent in all of its aspects, so vast in its proportions, so inviting, that I sought an interview, assuming of course that the object of my concern, having for centuries resided on the Gulf of Mexico, would not be adverse to disclosing some of the details of a prosperous and well-spent life.
“It has not been my privilege to look upon so massive yet so symmetrical a Live Oak as yourself,” I remarked, with no desire to conceal my admiration.
“Due to protection from the surrounding forest and the mild climate prevailing along the north shore of the gulf, which is safely outside of the zone of hurricanes,” replied the tree.
“How long have you lived here?”
“About 41⁄2 centuries. I was a sapling when Christopher sailed into the Caribbean, and had begun to bear acorns when Ponce de Leon reached Florida in quest of the Fountain of Youth. In 1587, the year Virginia Dare, the first white child born at Roanoke Island, appeared, I had turned a hundred years and was a pretty well-developed oak, with strong branches extending in every direction, producing not less than 2,000 pounds of acorns per annum.
“With the settlement of Jamestown and the coming of the Spaniards, I saw many a pirate ship on this coast, where they put in for water and supplies, with headquarters at the mouth of the Mississippi. La Fitte and Blackbeard dropped anchor hereabouts during my time. When Captain Kid was hanged in London in 1701 for his American buccaneering, I had been right here where you see me now, for more than 200 years. How time flies!”
“When did you reach the full stage of your development; attain your growth, so to speak?”
“During Napoleon’s reign, I should say. You can see from the bark on my trunk that I am quite old and that no new branches are putting forth. For the past century I have been producing from 6,000 to 7,000 pounds of acorns each year. In 1935 my output was 8,000 pounds, or 250 bushels.
“My height at the crown is 70 feet; diameter of trunk, 5 feet plus; circumference of trunk, 16 feet; spread of foliage, 120 feet, the diameter of my almost perfectly circular shadow when the sun is on the median light in June.
“The average length of my main lateral limbs is 55 to 60 feet from the trunk, the terminals curving symmetrically toward the earth; average circumference of limbs at trunk, 5 feet; nearly 12,000 square feet of shelter; length of lateral roots, 85 feet; depth of tap-roots, 35 feet. I positively decline to tell my weight.”
“What are those platforms and staircases built into the lower limbs and around the trunk?”
“The outdoor lecture room where Vachel Lindsay held his classes in English literature and poetry.
There is space here for 50 students to seat themselves comfortably. Extended, these platforms could easily accommodate 150 students without disturbing my leafage.
“There is room under my extended branches for all of the 300 girls attending Gulf Park to find shelter without crowding one another, and with space to spare. You will observe that I have the proportions and characteristics of a vast umbrella. My leafage is so dense that no matter how steady the downpour during the rainy season, there is always a dry space 70 feet in diameter under the extending branches.”
“You should have a title.”
“I am called the Friendship Oak. Those who enter my shadow are supposed to remain friends through all their lifetime no matter where fate may take them in after years. I can tell you, without betraying secrets that there is not an alumni of Gulf Park College, regardless of when she graduated, who does not possess, tucked away somewhere among her keepsakes and treasures a twig, a leaf or an acorn that came out of my heart.
“And when I am too old to bear leaves and acorns I wish to be felled, fashioned into timber and converted into a summer house where the girls of Gulf Park can foregather and exchange confidences of Youth.”
“And perhaps touch upon the immutability of time.”
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.