PONCA — Think back to 377 years ago and picture what the area must have looked like.
Trees and grasses covering the prairie, river valleys and hills. No roads. No bridges. No fences.
If one current resident of Ponca State Park could only speak, we could learn so much about the region’s history.
The roots of one particular bur oak tree, known by park staff and visitors simply as the Old Oak Tree, run deep here. A core drilling in 1964 dated the tree to 1644, just 24 years after the Pilgrims landed in America.
“It’s actually really remarkable that a tree can live that long,” park superintendent Scott Oligmueller said. “You think about all the history that’s happened from the time it was a sapling until now.”
Consider, the tree was already 132 years old when the United States declared its independence in 1776. When Lewis and Clark passed nearby, headed up the Missouri River in 1803, the oak was 159 years old. It was 223 years old when Nebraska achieved statehood in 1867.
Anchored in the ground above a small ravine, the oak has witnessed the changing seasons, dropped its leaves hundreds of times now. It’s weathered countless spring and summer thunderstorms packing damaging winds and lightning. Survived who knows how many blizzards and ice storms.
It’s had a few close calls. Oligmueller said the core drilling extracted to date the tree showed fire scars. It escaped axes wielded by early settlers looking for building materials and fuel. Its gnarled trunk shows spots where the tree has lost limbs over the years. It’s got a few dead limbs now, but park workers won’t prune them, opting to let nature take its course, just as it has for nearly four centuries.
“It’s been through some stuff,” Oligmueller said.
Bur oaks have a 200-300-year lifespan, and some live 400 years or more. The Old Oak Tree is believed to be the oldest documented tree in Nebraska. Visitors who had their pictures taken with it when they were younger now bring grandchildren for similar pictures, often putting them in a crook in the tree that’s the perfect height for kids to sit in.
Follow the winding park roads and the signs pointing the way to a small parking lot at the top of a hill. A set of steps takes you down to the historic tree. Oligmueller says it’s not as big as you might expect a tree that age to be. It’s had to compete with other trees for sunshine over the years, but there’s enough open prairie around it to allow ample sunlight through.
The 1-mile Old Oak Trail leading past the foot of the tree ensures a stream of visitors who might stop and enjoy the shade under its sweeping limbs or just run their fingers over the ancient bark. There’s no fence to keep visitors at a distance. Instead, they’re encouraged to experience the tree.
“We trust people that they’re going to take care of it and respect it,” Oligmueller said.
With proper care and respect, it’s hard telling how long the tree might live. Lightning or wind could deal a damaging blow next summer, or never. Aside from the unpredictable elements, the tree appears healthy and ready to greet visitors for years to come.
“The last time we inspected the tree, it’s still in very good health,” Oligmueller said. “It’s very hard to tell the future. Currently the short term looks very, very promising.”
Yes, it’s nearly impossible to predict the future, but a visit to the Old Oak Tree enables one to get a glimpse of and imagine the past.