One of the world's largest pecan trees
The Big Pecan Tree of Carroll County, Tennessee (above photo) was one of the world's largest pecan trees. In 1958, it was measured as 104 feet in height, 125 feet in crown spread, and 17 feet 8 inches in circumference of the trunk. Though it was a mature tree, it was still growing! In 1973 (image of the tree in about 1973), it was measured as 106 feet in height, 136 feet in spread, and 18 feet 2 inches in circumference. Its shade was said to cover an acre of ground.
The American Forestry Association recorded the tree's 1973 measurements in its Register of Big Trees and named it "The World's Largest Pecan Tree". It held the title for a short time, but within a year, larger pecan trees were found in Louisiana and Virginia.
Ric Brooks' photo of the tree (above) was taken in 2004, near the end of the Big Pecan Tree's life. Deterioration is clearly evident; however, the size of the tree is suggested by the massive trunk and branch captured in the photo. The trunk was filled with concrete, some of which is visible. Because of the concrete, the exact age of the tree could not be ascertained.
Planted along the Natchez Trace
The Big Pecan Tree grew along the Natchez Trace in west-central Tennessee. I picked up an information sheet titled "Natchez Trace State Park History" at the state park's visitor center several years ago. It described the Natchez Trace as...
...originally... an ill-defined series of trails and paths beaten out by the Indians and perhaps the buffalo. Several of these trails, though individually unimportant, when joined together lead to a Northeasterly direction from the present day Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee.
Later the settlers would travel down the Trace to sell their goods, often on foot, further tramping out and identifying a more definite Trace.
(Source: Undated, unattributed hand-out from the Natchez Trace State Park Visitors Center)
A high, dry ridge in Carroll County, Tennessee, was an unlikely spot for The Big Pecan Tree to grow. Pecans were not native to that area, which suggests that an old legend about the tree is probably based on fact. Oral history claims that a pecan nut was brought to the site by travelers on the Natchez Trace, which passed a mere 30 feet from the site where the tree grew.
A plaque placed at the tree in the 1930s by the John McCall Chapter of the D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution) recorded the legend: "Accepted tradition says that this tree had grown from a pecan given to Sukey Morris by one of Andrew Jackson's men as they traveled homeward after the Battle of New Orleans." No official records of Sukey Morris are known to exist, but it is thought she might have been the child of squatters who were living along the Natchez Trace. The area was still Indian territory at the end of the War of 1812.
The 1986 History of Carroll County provides some additional documentation of the tree's history:
In the book "Westward to the Roundtop", Mr. Morris mentions the pecan tree as a landmark in 1830. Families coming to Carroll County from North Carolina passed the tree on their way to Lexington from the Roundtop Community; it was already bearing fruit.
(Source: History of Carroll County, p. 63)
A life that spanned three centuries
The pecan (Carya illinoinensis) is long-lived, like its brethren, the hickories, and many other members of the walnut family. It reaches maturity at around 150-200 years. Many specimens survive 250 years or longer. If the Big Pecan Tree was planted in 1816, it would have been 188 years old in 2004, the date when Ric Brooks' photograph was taken.
The Big Pecan Tree, already supported with cables and filled with concrete by tree surgeons, was heavily damaged by a windstorm in 2000. For a few years, one large branch survived, as seen in the photo. Brooks commented on the tree's sad condition:
The tree was in pretty bad shape when I took that picture. That one limb was about 12 feet off the ground and stretched out about 15 feet. Just the limb itself was very impressive. You can see in the picture that the trunk was dying by then. It was alive but the person I was with and myself both knew that it wasn't long for this earth.
(Source: Email from Ric Brooks, November 20, 2009)
Now the tree has completely died. The remains of its trunk have been cut down and pushed into a gully, apparently in 2008 or early 2009. The D.A.R. plaque telling the legend of Sukey Morris has been removed.
"There's nothing left to see," a park secretary assured me, when I telephoned to inquire about the Big Pecan Tree. She underestimated my curiosity. I would enjoy seeing even the stump.
On the web:
Natchez Trace Pecan, Wildersville, TN