Back from the dead: a Giant returns home

FELLED GIANT The Fieldbrook Stump with 60 Little Sprouts on it. Ericson Collection, Humboldt State University

Steve D’Agati
Special to the Union

I knew about the historic tree. I had also heard the rumor. 

David Heller’s story, “A Fieldbrook Giant and the Astor Dining Table” was a major break tracking this story down; and by doing so, they brought a living legacy back to Humboldt. 

His August article appeared in the Redheaded Blackbelt: In 1896, one of the largest-ever known redwood trees in the world was unceremoniously cut down just outside the small town of Fieldbrook. Known as the Fieldbrook Giant from where it grew, or the Fieldbrook Stump after it was cut, it was a redwood the world would marvel over after hearing of its untimely demise. 

The cutting of the Fieldbrook Giant captured the world’s imagination in newspaper stories from California to Europe. Redwoods were widely known throughout the world by this time, and the public was either enamored or dismayed by the falling of the Fieldbrook Giant. 

The base of the tree measured a colossal 32 to 35 feet across in diameter, and details of the tree’s age, height and circumference varied widely in sensationalist reports.

CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK Drawing of the Astor Slab cut from the Fieldbrook Giant. San Francisco Call, Jan. 15, 1899, and from Redheaded Blackbelt

The Fieldbrook Giant was felled so a huge crosscut section of the tree — weighing in at 13.5 tons–could be shipped to England for the William Astor estate. 

Supposedly William made a drunken bet that “trees in California were so large he could make a table seating 20 people around it.” As the alleged story grew further, ‘the dining table sat 49 people’ around its tremendously wide girth and with space to spare. 

William Astor, however, said the ostentatious story was untrue — and, demanding retractions, he’d sue any newspaper repeating it. 

Nonetheless, the weighty slab had been shipped from Humboldt to San Francisco, sailed around the Cape Horn to New York, freighted to London over two days, and arduously hauled up the Thames by a team of 16 horses to the Astor Estate. The slab now sits at the former Astor garden in Cliveden, now part of the National Trust.

INSIDE THE GIANT Blue Ox’s Crosscut Section of the Giant on Display. Via Blue Ox Millworks

Surprisingly enough, there is also another crosscut section of the Fieldbrook tree locally on display – in Eureka at the Blue Ox Millworks. This crosscut was salvaged from Eureka’s historic Stump House, a local tourist attraction selling souvenir novelties and gifts. 

Blue Ox also has the original 20-foot custom-made saw specifically used to cut down the Giant. Eric Hollenbeck, Blue Ox’s director, explained it was a custom-made number manufactured by the Holmes Lumber Company’s machine shop for the Vance Lumber Mill. 

Hollenbeck further explained it likely took the Vance’s best two sawmen working 10-hour days for a week or more falling the massive tree.

I’d heard the rumor about the tree, too. Someone, many years ago, located the Fieldbrook Giant and extracted its still-living tissue. Through David Heller’s story, I found this was not only true, but the article contained the exact information I needed: David Milarch, a fourth-generation arborist, found the tree, extracted living cells or cuttings from its basal sprouts, and propagated clones of the Giant in his Michigan lab. 

A WEE SPROUT One of the Cloned Saplings ready for planting. Archangel Ancient Tree Archive

Milarch’s company, the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, finds, preserves, and propagates what they term rare “champion trees.” A former biker, ex-heavy drinker, and nearly dead from renal failure on the operating table before being brought back to life, Milarch’s mission now is to preserve the DNA genetics of these ancient old growth trees in “living libraries” before they disappear forever. The Giant was one of his missions. In fact, it was his very first cloning experiment.

Having David Heller’s information in hand, I contacted the Archangel company. Their website doesn’t readily indicate they give or sell any of their trees away to the public and their business model is unusual to say the least. But at least I had a lead to work with.

An online search indicated the Fieldbrook Giant (or Stump, whichever you like), never made its way back to Humboldt. Had no one thought of doing this before? Talking to many residents of Fieldbrook, some remembered playing on the stump when they were young and now bringing their children and grandchildren to play on it, too. They were completely surprised to find out it still lives —  albeit in clone form, and in Copemish, Michigan.

I asked the Archangel company if they would send me the Fieldbrook clone. I assured them we had the right growing conditions and made the strong case of it coming home. 

I patiently waited. I contacted the company again several times. I heard very little, if anything, in reply. It just wasn’t looking good.

Then, in a sudden confirmation phone call, I was told they would indeed send a Giant clone.

JUNIOR GIANT The Fieldbrook Giant – minus 1,175 years – returning home. Steve D’Agati photo

It would be at the end of October, their only delivery window for shipping. I’d have to pay a small amount for Michigan inspection and treatment, and the FedEx shipping. I’d have to be on the porch when delivery came, immediately take the tree out of the shipping box and give it some water, and promptly transplant it into the ground or a larger container. I readily agreed. 

Then, almost haphazardly, I thought I might as well go for broke. “Could you send me five trees?” I politely asked, the amount they said the state inspector would allow without getting himself too cranky. 

I thought this dicey last-ditch effort would nix things entirely. Apparently, it didn’t. 

Yes, they would, they said. “Get them into the ground and give them life,” Don Smith, the company volunteer, told me. They didn’t want their prize saplings suffering or even dying because of my random neglect.

The five little trees arrived two weeks ago. Alive and well.

They certainly didn’t look like behemoths when I peered into the box. The 18-inch trees came in a packing container filled with Styrofoam peanuts and small air holes punched into the sides. “Live Trees” were emblazoned on the box along with the State Inspector’s required paperwork. 

I carefully took them out of the box, noticing the main stems were attached to supporting sticks and their fragile branches delicately taped for shipment. They were in surprisingly good shape. I brought them over to the barn for some water and to slowly acclimatize them to natural sunlight. The following day I transplanted them into larger pots. 

It’s taken the Archangel company 4 1/2 years to grow these small trees from micro-cuttings to their 18-inch size. It will take another 1,175 years for them to grow as large as the original Giant did. I don’t think any of us will be around by then.

So now what? Where will these trees go from here? 

Here’s the general idea: I would like one of the Giant trees returning to Fieldbrook. That’s a very important consideration. Their community deserves having it return home. I’m looking for an individual or organization with a suitable site who would like it — and a place where the Fieldbrook community can see it. I haven’t decided on a spot yet. Do you know of one?

CLONE AGE Steve D’Agati presents the giant clone seedling to Eric Hollenbeck of Blue Ox Millworks. Via Blue Ox Millworks

Another tree has been accepted by the Blue Ox Millworks and Historic Village. They’ll have it on display for the public to see, learning of its storied history. For them, it’s a project coming full circle and one to inspire future generations. If you haven’t been to Blue Ox lately, you should see what they have going on. It’s an exceptional place of craftsmanship, ideas and industry.

And still another Giant tree will grow at an undisclosed location in Freshwater. As for the other two trees, I’m still undecided. I’m not sure where they will go. Any suggestions?

Think of it. 120 years after being cut down and thought to be gone forever, The Fieldbrook Giant is back by a miracle of modern science. It’s almost like something out of Jurassic Park. 

Thanks to David Heller’s story in the Redheaded Blackbelt, The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive and with some simple persistence, the Fieldbrook Giant (or Stump, whichever name you prefer) has returned for the first time to Humboldt County. This wouldn’t have happened without this. 

If you have any helpful suggestions or comments, please leave a reply. I would like hearing it.

Thank you.

Further information

Odd, Old News: “A Fieldbrook Giant and the Astor Dining Table”

Archangel Ancient Tree Archive website, ancienttreearchive.org

Archangel’s Blog of Going from Clone to Tree

National Geographic’s Short, inspiring piece on David Milarch: “Moving the Giants’

Blue Ox Millworks and Historic Village

Steve D’Agati is a retired employee of the Humboldt County Probation Department, having spent most of his time as a group counselor inside the Juvenile Hall. A resident of Freshwater, he now spends his time outside maintaining the homestead (a never-ending and happy chore), volunteering in the community, and spending time with his family.He’s very grateful for how things have turned out. Humboldt has been very good to him, and he likes seeing good people and ideas that have come along the way. Contact him via the Union at [email protected]. 

 

 

 







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