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Follow the Muddy Dirt Road

Question: What do you get when you combine Italian immigrants, a bag of Louisiana acorns, some determined folk in a historically-minded Texas town and a California native who (along with his crew) moves trees with all the pride and competence you’d expect from an ex-Marine?

Answer: A feel-good story of the first order. Read on…

League City, Texas is growing. In the year 2000, the U.S. Censusfound 45,874 residents in the just-slightly-sleepy little town I call home, By 2010, I’d added myself and my mother to the new total of 83,560, and plenty of others have done so since.  Homes, schools and churches are popping up everywhere. New business is coming in, traffic is becoming an issue and we’ve earned the distinction of having the third-worst intersection in the Houston-Galveston area.

Road construction is a fact of life, particularly since so many streets no longer are traveled only by the people who live along them. Plans were well underway to convert such a street, Louisiana Avenue,  from an open ditch, rural roadway to a concrete-curbed storm sewer thoroughfare when some observant citizens realized a tiny obstacle stood in the way of all that progress – an uncommon and historically significant tree, the Ghirardi Compton Oak.

Comptons are wonderful trees, a cross between overcup and live oaks. Overcups are tolerant of poor drainage and grow in just about anything but standing water. Live oaks also are site tolerant, but prefer better drainage.  While live oaks produce masses of tasty acorns, the overcup’s developed a bit of a reputation as the “acorn of last resort” for hungry animals.

The relatively rare Comptons combine the best traits of both parents and in some cases improve on them. Faster growth, larger, tastier acorns and heavy production are typical of the Compton, although each tree tends to favor either the live or overcup side of the family. Compton oaks also happen to be extraordinary beautiful; the older ones often display large, magnificent canopies.

They’re a nice fit for League City, where beautiful trees abound. The city’s live oak legacy began in 1854 when three interrelated families – the Butlers, Cowards and Perkins – traveled overland from Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, to the coastal prairies of Galveston County.  Settling somewhat west of the current League City, on Clear (or Chigger) Creek, they established cattle ranches and followed Acadian tradition by planting oaks from bags of acorns carried from Louisiana in their wagons.

The trees thrived, so much so that when George Washington Butler moved his ranch headquarters to town in the 1870s, he brought with him a multitude of young oaks that had been started on Chigger Creek. When the community renamed itself League City in the first decade of the 1900’s, Butler asked J.C. League to ship in some flat cars of live oaks to continue transforming the prairie. The shipment was accomplished, and any homeowner who couldn’t afford the $4 per tree price tag was given one to plant in his yard. Many of these Butler Oaks still survive, century-old trees that have become the symbol for League City.

Even as the early tree-planting was taking place, agriculture was beginning to flourish. Truck farming of strawberries, corn, cucumbers, beets, figs, tomatoes and grapefruit was developed by a group of Italian families rooted in Cercenasco, Italy, a town in the province of Turin. Over a thirty year period, these Italians entered America through Ellis Island, then sailed for Galveston.

Unlike many Italian immigrants who rooted themselves on Galveston Island, the Vaglienti, Arolfo, Daro, Cucco, Morratto, Bocco and Ghirardi families moved inland, establishing a strong, cohesive community that continues to enrich League City life.

As it happens, 75-year-old Clarence Ghirardi used to sort canteloupe under the disputed Compton oak, which shaded land owned by his uncle. Over the years the land and its tree stayed in the family, and Clarence’s son Michael and grandsons Eric and Drayce played beneath its limbs. The Ghirardi family’s preference was to see it stay put, perhaps with the street curving around it. When it became obvious that option was unworkable, Clarence offered to donate a half-acre of his own land to provide a new home for the tree.

The land had the advantage of bordering a park already in development, but the plan would require moving the tree about 1500 feet. It would be an expensive and complex operation, one which offered no guarantees but which at least might avoid turning the tree into firewood.

As you might imagine, there was a great commotion for months.  There were vigils, and arguments, and the usual complaints about frivolous use of tax dollars. (As it turned out, no tax dollars were spent, thanks in part to a $10,000 contribution by Trees for Houston which helped to get the ball rolling.) Eventually, the tree had its own Facebook page, City Council members were being lobbied within an inch of their lives, and people who’d never heard of the Ghirardis or a Compton oak were stopping by for a look.

Barry Ward, Executive Director of Trees for Houston, put it best. “If everybody pitches in and cooperates and thinks about what we can do, the likelihood is you will save one of the most significant Compton oaks in North America. The question now is: Does the city council have the will to go ahead and make it happen?”

In the end, they did have that will. A bid was accepted from Hess Landscape Construction of Orange County, California, for $197,500. When Erik Hess and his crew showed up and went to work, they not only impressed the town with their competence, they inspired a community as well. And when they put their 1,300 horsepower and 400,000 pounds of equipment to the test, the old Ghiradi oak groaned, creaked and complained – but she moved.

Certainly, moving a tree of such size involves more than a bucket and a shovel. There are dimensions to be taken, soils to be tested, trenches to be dug and on-site boxes to be built. By the time all was said and done, the great Ghirardi oak had been transformed into a Texas-sized bonsai, the center of the town’s attention as it waited for its big day.

The machinery that made the move possible was far less impressive than the people who made it work.  There’s something beautiful and inspiring about watching a tightly-knit and competent team accomplish a goal, people so disciplined and attuned to one another that unexpected problems never rise to the level of crisis.

When one of the primary cables linking the excavators and bulldozers snapped just before the tree was moved into its new hole, the problem-solving process seemed to be more nerve-wracking for observers than for those actually solving the problem.

After the move was complete and the crowd had dispersed, I talked for few minutes with Erik Hess, the company owner who supervised the move. “I’ll bet you’re going to sleep well tonight,” I said. Laughing, he acknowledged some relief and suggested that the whole team would be sleeping better.

When the word “stress” came up in our conversation, he said the Marine Corps had taught him a good bit about how to deal with it. “You get around it not by focusing on the stress, but by paying attention to the challenge in front of you,” he said.  Clearly, he’d learned the lesson well. Only after I uploaded my photos from the day did I notice one small ambiguous gesture that might have suggested stress – the lightly clenched fists in the photo below.

Beyond that, there was only what a woman watching nearby called “artisty”, a beautifully choreographed pas de deux of knowledge and experience that ended to accolades and applause.

Now that the Ghirardi oak has been replanted, mulched, irrigated and fed, there’s not much action down at the park. Experts are keeping an eye on the tree, of course, but watching a root system reestablish itself is akin to watching paint dry.  People still drive down Louisiana Avenue to have a look at the tree from the road. Some park, and spend a little time gawking. Others walk across the pasture and take photos, just to remember.

And in more households than you might imagine, a sudden impulse strikes. “Wasn’t that wonderful?” someone thinks. “I’d love to see that again.” Thanks to the same people who dared commit to saving a piece of their town’s legacy, they can see it again. And you can watch, too – just to see how wonderful it truly was.

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