On a late Friday afternoon, Burr Oak Road was quieter than usual.
Flooding from the Missouri River had submerged the winding (and now closed) asphalt lanes and flat fields, thereby transforming the infinite stretch of farmland that surrounds the McBaine Bur Oak into a swampy scene. So the sight of a faded gold Town and Country minivan cruising along the closed road came as a surprise to me and my friend, who were casually sitting crisscross in the middle of the pavement.
Rather than passing us, the driver slowly pulled to the side and rolled down her window.
“Are you guys worshipping the Big Tree?”
“No,” I say. “I’m actually meeting the owner of it here for an interview, though.”
“Well, I really hope it makes it.” She shifted her gaze toward the trunk, which measures 23 feet in circumference. “I know it can withstand droughts. I don’t know if it can withstand floods.”
In its 350 years, the McBaine Bur Oak, known as "the Big Tree," has stood tall through various natural disasters, direct lightning strikes and even vandalism. John Sam Williamson Jr., whose ancestors purchased the property on which the Big Tree grows in 1835, credits the champion bur oak’s long life to good genes and good fortune.
“It’s not usual for an oak tree to be out here,” Williamson says. “In 1993, the water was 9 feet deep here. It took forever for that water to go down, and a lot of trees died after the ’93 flood, but not this one. It’s genetically superior, and it’s just lucky.”
For Williamson, the Big Tree is family, and he enjoys sharing this piece of his life with the community.
“Every place I’ve gone in these past few weeks, it’s been, ‘how’s the tree?’” Williamson says. “It’s everybody’s tree. People bring their children down here when they bring their kids to school, candidates have come down here and held rallies and my daughter was proposed to under this tree. There are a lot of stories."
Tim James, the former wildlife management biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation and a close friend of Williamson, calls the Big Tree a “state treasure,” one that attracts everyone from students hosting picnics under its branches to priests spending quiet time nestled between its roots.
“I’ve been in Columbia since 1983, and everybody knows about this tree,” James says. “It’s a really cool meeting spot, and you can start conversations about it, like, ‘Hey man, have you seen the Big Tree?’ It’s part of Missouri and part of Boone County and part of Columbia. It’s just special to know about it.”
And Williamson, whom James nicknamed “Mr. Boone County,” is the man behind the magic of the Big Tree.
“It’s memorable, but a lot of it is [because of] John,” James says. “He really does take such pride in caring for the tree.”