Letter to the editor: Preserving the heritage of a historic Thurston County oak tree


Over 400 years ago, an acorn grew into a tree now slated for destruction by the mayor of Tumwater and a Thurston County judge. This venerable oak tree stands along Old Highway 99 alongside the Olympia airport a mile north of the historic George Bush homestead.

The tree has a branch spread of 90 feet and produces up to a thousand pounds of acorns. I harvested acorns this past fall to plant in our nursery, appreciating the tree for its heritage and tremendous abundance of large acorns.

I can attest to its overall health — oak wood is known for its strength. While nothing lasts forever, and trees lose branches in storms, motorists are in much greater danger from other cars coming in the opposite direction at 60 miles per hour.

Previous highway engineers have routed Highway 99 slightly around the giant tree and erected a concrete barrier between the tree and the highway. If it doesn’t get cut down next week, it could be around for another couple hundred years. If they leave the stump intact, oaks can sometimes resprout.

George Bush was a rancher in Missouri Territory, about to become a state. As a free black man no longer feeling welcome in a state deciding if slavery would be allowed — 15 years before the start of the Civil War — in 1844 he brought his family to Fort Vancouver.

He was so well liked by his neighbors that some, including Michael Simmons — the eventual founder of Tumwater — came with him.

When they arrived at Fort Vancouver, intending to settle in Oregon, they found that the Territorial Legislature had just enacted a law excluding Black people from settlement on pain of whipping, so George Bush and Michael Simmons traveled to South Puget Sound.

They found a landscape of large oak trees in a parklike open prairie, which was much easier to clear for farming than old growth forest.

Native people had created this environment using fire, which encouraged the growth of fire-resistant oaks and suppressed conifers that would eventually shade them out.

The abundant acorn crops fed a wide variety of wildlife, and were also harvested as a staple food. Bitter when raw, the acorns were collected in baskets, then soaked in a stream until all bitterness leached out.

The Bush family started a farm and Michael Simmons started a mill at Tumwater Falls. Bush Prairie, Bush Middle School and Isabella Bush Park in Tumwater all celebrate the legacy of the Bush family.

Ten years later, Ezra Meeker — founder of Puyallup — traveled the Oregon Trail, passing by this oak tree later named after him. This tree stands today as a magnificent remnant of a once-extensive landscape now largely gone.

This Saturday. June 8, I will give away free small potted seedlings from this tree as a way of preserving its heritage. They can be acquired at our market stall number 24 at the southeast corner at the Olympia Farmers Market from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.


Michael Dolan

Burnt Ridge Nursery