Big Black Walnut

Posted on 4 January 2016

Big Black Walnut

We associate outrageous nineteenth-century traveling exhibits of gigantic trees with giant sequoias like the “General Noble.” However, this showpiece tradition began decades before the “discovery” of the Mammoth Tree of California.

Consider the “Big Black Walnut Tree”—a tree purportedly of “extreme old age, estimated not less than five centuries”—that once grew on the south shore of Lake Erie near Buffalo. When a windstorm blew it down in the early 1820s, a local tavern owner transported the trunk, 36 feet in circumference, to his business place and excavated from it a novelty bar room. The hollowed-out tree was later shipped to Buffalo (where it served as a grocery) and Rochester. Finally, a gentleman businessman purchased the tree-room for exhibition and sent it via the newly completed Erie Canal to New York City, where curiosity seekers paid to enter this “Prodigy of Vegetation.” The exhibit made enough money to merit showings in Philadelphia and finally London, England. The floor of the walnut “drawing room” was covered with a “Brussels Medallion Carpet,” and could accommodate 15 people sitting in a circle or 30 people standing. Genteel hangings covered the interior walls: engravings of William Penn and Marquis de Lafayette; a framed letter from General George Washington; birds-eye views of great cities; “splendid Mirrors,” and so on.

Outside, the upper band of the “Monarch of the Forest” carried a legend from Psalm 104: O Lord, how manifold are Thy works. In Wisdom hast Thou made them all: the earth is full of Thy riches.

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