By Donda Foran Thomasson
The McFaddin-Ward House, an historic house/museum nestled in oil-rich Beaumont, Texas and graced with sweeping porches, overlooks a massive garden that features two centurion Live Oaks named “William” and “Rachel.”
The giant trees were several decades old when the house was built beside them in 1906, with the intent for the trees to anchor the home’s city-block-size gardens. The trees have weathered drought and downpours, heat waves and the rare ice storm, and the occasional hurricane, including the 2005 Hurricane Rita that felled every tenth tree in the county. William and Rachel seemed eternal, their yard-wide trunks too heavy to yield to any storm. But then on September 12, 2008, Hurricane Ike’s power was too great for one of the mighty oaks.
Following Category 3 Hurricane Ike’s 15-hour rampage through Southeast Texas, Buildings & Grounds Supervisor Felix McFarland surveyed the damage to the museum. He discovered Rachel was partially uprooted, exposing its massive rootball on the south side of the tree and crushing the roots on its north.
While McFarland consulted with several tree services and arborists, he had his ground crew and security guards keep the bared roots irrigated. McFarland conferred with Lee Stansberry of Bayou Tree Service of New Orleans and with Mac Davis of Davis Tree Experts of Vidor, TX.
Because the roots on the backside of the fall were irretrievably compressed and the roots on the exposed root ball were fractured, straightening the tree would be a death blow due to too much root loss. Instead of bringing the roots to the ground, the alternative was to move the ground to the roots.
Stansberry, whose company specializes in Live Oaks in the Louisiana area, outlined a revitalization program. The program included cement, backfill, fungus, bio-packs, carbohydrate reserves, proper water levels, and deep pruning. Davis Tree Experts developed the rejuvenation applications with Green Leaf Technology in Georgia, a supplier of organic and biological products.
Davis learned the tree business from his father in the family business started in 1949. “This tree is a part of the history of the Golden Triangle, and we are pouring all our efforts towards saving the tree.” From his experience with different scenarios of uprooted trees, split trees, and trees with root rot, he is hopeful the tree can be saved. His business and life partner Lisa Davis added, “We are doing absolutely everything that we can do to help it along” including her praying for Divine intervention.
Construction company Bo-Mac Contractors, Inc. brought its cement and earth-moving equipment onto the museum grounds. Work started quickly on pouring a concrete retaining wall where the century-old rock pond just two weeks prior had adorned the area between the Live Oaks. Then some 25 yards of nutrition-rich top soil from Rose City, Texas and high-grade mulch were trundled into the area to crown over the root ball. Davis applied the specified organic materials to stimulate the root system without fueling leaf growth. He used a bio-pack of nutrients, natural fungus, and beneficial bacteria to restore the natural habitat the tree had lost in the upheaval. In the meantime, the tree canopy was pruned hardily to concentrate the tree’s energy on reestablishing its root system.
After several weeks, the rejuvenated tree is showing a healthy sign: contrasting against the expected browning leaves of autumn and stress are the hopeful appearances of small leafbuds.
However, Stansberry stresses that the after-care is critical. “The affects of not doing the job right are very immediate. But it’s five years from now before the tell-tale signs of success can be seen.”
The next phases of the “Saving Rachel” project will include beautifying the wall and providing access to the rock-covered bench behind the trees. The tree limbs will also need to be re-cabled for support and the lightning wires restrung to recalibrated measurements for maximum effectiveness.
Why the name Rachel?
William McFaddin, the father of the original owner of the McFaddin-Ward House, participated in the Texas Revolution battle of San Jacinto. A teen-age boy at the time, he tended to the wounded and dead. His army service payment was a land deed which is part of the museum complex. In about 1870, at a veterans’ reunion at San Jacinto, he gathered acorns and planted two of them on his property. About thirty years later, the beautiful three-story Beaux Arts style house was erected beside the maturing oaks.
Live Oaks whose girths surpass eight feet are eligible for registration with The Live Oak Society of the Louisiana Garden Club Federation Incorporated. However, registration requires names for the oaks. The museum board christened the trees after the tree planter and his wife, William and Rachel McFaddin. The elder McFaddins are the parents of WPH McFaddin, the man whose family built and lived in the McFaddin-Ward House. “William” is on the south side of the pair and “Rachel” on the north. In 1984, #1088 William McFaddin with 19.09 foot girth and #1089 Rachel McFaddin with 17.06 girth were entered into the Live Oak Society’s registry.
Why the effort?
The museum wants to save the tree because of its importance to the museum’s heritage. The tour guides usually end their tours of the house under the oaks, telling family stories related to the museum’s beautiful grounds, and graciously inviting people to come back for additional tours and share in museum events.
Museum Director Matt White underscored the museum’s reason for the great effort to save the tree. “The trees predate the house and represent the family’s ties to early Texas history. They provide the historical context museum visitors can experience when they tour the home’s grounds.”
Starting right after the storm, the devoted legion of docents called to find out how the museum fared from Hurricane Ike. When told we might lose one of the Live Oaks, the immediate question shot back was ‘Which one: William or Rachel?’”
Donda Foran Thomasson, is communications coordinator for the McFaddin-Ward House. For more information about this project, contact the author at Donda@mcfaddin-ward.org or 409-832-1906.