In search of a great tree
Off the beaten track in Mobile, the Duffie Oak endures
By Rick Holmes
May 19, 2017
Even if you’re mostly wandering, it helps to have something to look for.
Over our travels, my wife and I have made a point of visiting trees that are renowned for their size, age or history. We stopped in Falmouth, Maine, to see Herbie, certified as the largest American elm in New England. I hiked miles out of my way in Olympic National Park to visit the Hoh Sitka Spruce, one of the largest and oldest of its species on the planet. We’ve stopped a couple of times in Sunderland, Mass., to give our regards to a sycamore on Main Street recognized as a “significant tree” by virtue of its being alive at the time of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.
So when we reached Alabama we went looking for the Duffie Oak. From what we’d read online, it was “Mobile’s oldest inhabitant,” and said to be of impressive size. But the references we found left out the address, and the guidebooks we picked up in Mobile made no mention of it.
After an hour or so exploring downtown Mobile – a busy port that gives a modest nod to history and culture – we found a nearly empty tourist information center. The people staffing the desk had never heard of the Duffie Oak, but were happy to join us in googling around for more information. Then an older staff member returned from lunch. He knew the Duffie Oak well, he said, and he knew why such a big tree has such a low profile.
Some great trees survive because people build fences around them. It’s easy to find wonderful trees by visiting most cities’ oldest parks: Central Park in New York, Boston Common, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, the National Mall in Washington.
Several National Parks are named for the great trees they celebrate and protect: Redwood, Sequoia, Saguaro, Joshua Tree. All are worth a visit.
But other trees live to greatness without being fenced in by the state. They sprout where their seeds landed and just keep growing. They survive in part because year after year, generation after generation, the people who live near them have chosen to let them live rather than cut them down for lumber, firewood or to make room for fields and parking lots.
As these trees grew larger, their neighbors helped them out. The people who lived on Main Street kept their construction away from the Sunderland sycamore until it got old and big enough to be commemorated. In Falmouth, Frank Knight was Herbie’s unofficial caretaker for 50 years, nursing it through several bouts of Dutch Elm disease.
The Duffie Oak sprouted sometime before Mobile was named capital of French Louisiana in 1702. It continued to grow under the flags of France, Britain, Spain, the United States and, for four years, the Confederate States of America. It survived fires, hurricanes and Mobile’s growth from a trading settlement into an industrial city. In 1903, a row of shotgun houses was built on Caroline Avenue, a narrow road that skirted the Duffie Oak’s massive trunk. Still it grew.
The biggest threat to the huge tree came a few years ago, our guide said, when a developer planned to cut it down to make room for his apartment complex. The sprawling live oak was no secret to its neighbors, whose loud protests forced the builder to change his plans. But he still owns the land where the Duffie Oak grows, and has no interest in attracting visitors.
So it is with many great trees on private land. Those who pretend to own them would prefer their exact location remain secret.
We finally found Mobile’s grand tree in a modest neighborhood. It is magnificent.
It’s a Southern live oak, a tree known more for its reach than its height. Its limbs sprawl across Caroline Avenue, touch the ground and go up again. Its roots roll across the landscape. It is a climbing tree like no other - a hundred people could climb it at once. It took our breath away.
The long lives of the oldest trees make our own lives seem small, a perspective that helps put us in our place. But even the oldest of trees can’t live forever. Herbie’s last battle with Dutch Elm disease did him in, and it had to be taken down in 2010. The Hoh Sitka Spruce came down in a storm in 2014. The Pioneer Cabin Tree, a famous sequoia in California that suffered the indignity of having a tunnel cut through it to attract tourists, was toppled by storm in January.
But the mighty Duffie Oak survives, inspiring all who go out of their way to find it.