"The Senator," the oldest Bald Cypress tree, ca 1945
The black & white photograph on this unused postcard of "The Senator" shows people holding hands and surrounding the tree. Helping to date the card is the original fence and plaque. Parts of the fence and the plaque were lost to theft in 1945. Modern photographs show a different fence and the plaque placed higher on the tree trunk. Named "The Senator" after Florida State Senator Moses Overstreet, who donated the tree and surrounding land to Seminole County for a park in 1927, the tree is over 3,500 years old. At the bottom of the card it reads: “The ‘Big Tree’—Oldest Cypress in the U.S., 3,500 years old (127 ft) high, 47 ft. in circumference, 17.5 ft in diameter. On U.S. 17 and 92 between Sanford and Orlando, Florida.” Senator Overstreet dedicated the site with a commemorative bronze plaque, parts of which can be seen behind the boy standing in the middle of the picture.
The tree was once taller than described but a hurricane in 1925 destroyed the top of it reducing the height from 165 ft to 118 ft. When the photo on the card was taken the tree had grown to between 125 and 127 ft. The Seminoles and other Native Americans used the tree as a landmark and it also attracted many visitors even though it meant crossing swampy land by sometimes leaping from log to log to get to the tree.
Sadly in January 2012 a fire started at the top of the tree and burned from the inside out. Firefighters tried to save the tree but it collapsed leaving the tree 20 to 25 ft tall. At first it was believed that lightning had started the fire but it was later determined to have been the result of a human built fire that got out of control. The perpetrator was caught and given jail time.
Even after the fire had destroyed so much of the tree people continue to believe that parts of it are still living evidenced in part by saplings discovered at the base of the tree. Also officials have said that the tree was cloned at one time and after the fire a search was conducted to locate clones and bring them back. A small group of artists and woodworkers were allowed to create works of art from the charred remains of the tree. A few of the items produced include vases, pens, flutes, and sculptures some of which have been made available for sale. Seminole County officials are working toward having a permanent and traveling exhibit with selections of these artifacts.
The Big Tree Park was closed for about one year after the fire then reopened in 2014. A memorial was constructed that includes signs and an improved boardwalk, a playground, and a clone of the Senator was planted near the playground. The clone has been named “The Phoenix.” The Senator was not only the largest Bald Cypress in the United States but also the largest tree of any species east of the Mississippi River. In addition to the Senator there is a companion tree in Big Tree Park named the “Lady Liberty Tree,” 89 ft tall, about 2,000 years old.
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