The leaves of the honey locust trees lining the eastern side of 48th Street were beginning to turn yellow the day Union College opened its doors in 1891.
As some of Lincoln’s oldest living history, the trees were a fixture predating both the establishment of the Seventh-day Adventist school and the incorporation of College View.
Arborists estimate the honey locusts were some of the oldest trees in the area, having been planted as early as the 1870s.
But a thunderstorm that knocked out power and damaged homes and vehicles across the city last August also felled four of the 140-year-old trees included in the Joshua C. Turner Arboretum.
“These were right in the middle of the block at the very center of campus,” said Paul Jenks, the college’s director of plant services. “The storm just knocked them down.”
Native to a broad swath of North America, the honey locust is often described as hardy and a survivor, capable of living upward of 150 years in urban landscapes.
It’s not entirely clear where the early row of honey locusts that established the western edge of Union College’s campus came from, said Eric Berg, a program leader within the Nebraska Forest Service.
Pioneers were known to dig trees out of creek beds and other low-lying areas and transplant them to desired areas along streets or in rows to be used as windbreaks.
The railroad’s arrival in Nebraska meant new species of trees were available to settlers, shipped to the state from nurseries in Chicago, St. Louis or Kansas City.
“The trees that would come by railroad would have to survive days and potentially weeks on a train,” Berg said. “It was a big deal to get a tree to Nebraska, get it established and have it survive for 100-plus years.”
Wherever the line of honey locust originated, Union College immediately took steps to preserve the wood from the trees after the Aug. 19-20 storm, working with the Nebraska Forest Service to set up an urban lumber mill at nearby College View Academy.
Using the temporary mill Wednesday, Adam Smith, a forest products program leader for the Nebraska Forest Service, cut the downed honey locusts into planks 2 to 4 inches thick, revealing the twisting growth patterns and knots hidden deep within the wood.
“(Honey locust) is a very hard wood and grows pretty irregularly,” Smith said. “It’s a little misshaped, it twists and cracks; but for a decorative piece it works great.”
The planks will be sold to Union College alumni and donors as commemorative pieces, while larger pieces may go to specialized sawmills to become fireplace mantles or furniture, Jenks said.
At least two “tree cookies,” cross sections of the trunk displaying the rings showing the tree’s growth pattern, will be cut from some of the larger honey locusts, measuring more than 4 feet in diameter.
One cookie will be shipped to the University of Nebraska State Museum at Morrill Hall, while another will be put on display among the photographs, artifacts and personal papers in Union College’s Heritage Room.
That cookie will be turned into a timeline, with the corresponding tree ring used to denote major milestones on campus, said LuAnn Fredregill, an administrative assistant in the college president’s office.
“We’ll mark when the college was started, the events that shaped the college,” she said.
Berg said it was important that some of the oldest living pieces of Lincoln’s history will continue to provide enjoyment and utility as art or furniture.
“There is a lot of value in these trees, not only from a historical standpoint, but as something beautiful we often take for granted,” he said.