OPINION | REX NELSON: Trees of Washington

It's a brilliant fall afternoon as John P. Gill of Little Rock and I walk the grounds of Historic Washington State Park. Gill--a prominent attorney, Arkansas historian and author of several books--has devoted years to publicizing this Arkansas version of Colonial Williamsburg.

"Washington has the largest restored group of 19th century buildings in the state," he says. "There are 58 properties, including four territorial and 14 antebellum buildings and auxiliary structures. For more than four decades, there has been talk about the need for a bypass to take the huge trucks out of the middle of this historic park.

"The park is bisected by U.S. 278 and Arkansas 195, which was widened to accommodate a poultry plant west of Washington. We have these trucks making 90-degree turns in the middle of the park."

Gill and I talk about such matters over lunch at Williams Tavern. After lunch, we walk the grounds. I grew up in southwest Arkansas and have been here countless times. On this day, as the leaves begin to turn colors, it's not the structures that interest me. It's the large trees that shade this old town.

There's the Royston House magnolia. Gen. Grandison Royston was among the city fathers. He was a general in the Mexican War, a cousin of President Zachary Taylor, a plantation owner, a lawyer, a delegate to the first Arkansas Constitutional Convention in 1836 and president of the Arkansas Constitutional Convention of 1874.

John Brooks built a stately residence for the Royston family in 1845. Greek Revival-style characteristics of the house include square Doric columns. The house remains in its original location at the intersection of Morrison and Water streets. Royston probably planted the magnolia when the house was new. It's near the front driveway entrance.

This magnolia is different from what's known as the Historic Washington magnolia, which was planted by Royston next to his law office (which is no longer in existence) at the corner of Conway and Jay streets in 1839. It faced what at the time was the main town square. The Historic Washington magnolia was recognized as state champion magnolia from 1983-96 and remains a local landmark.

The massive tree has also been called the Royston magnolia, Crockett-Bowie magnolia and Jones magnolia. The Jones name came from two boys born the year the tree was planted. Daniel Jones became Arkansas' governor. James Jones became a U.S. senator from Arkansas. James Jones purchased the land where the magnolia stands and lived there for three decades.

Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, meanwhile, spent time in Washington on their way to Texas to fight for independence.

Next is the Mail Carrier Smith catalpa tree. John Smith came to Hempstead County in 1824 at age 7. In 1831, he carried mail almost 180 miles on horseback to Natchitoches, La. The round trip took 10 days, and he made two trips per month. He's said to have stopped one day under a catalpa tree along the Red River. He filled his pocket with winged seeds from the tree. When Smith got back to Washington, he scattered the seeds. Soon, catalpa trees were being planted across town and are now a trademark of the place.

Smith told this story to a newspaper known as the Southwest Press in 1883. The tree is adjacent to the 1836 Hempstead County Courthouse, which became a Confederate state capitol when Little Rock was abandoned by Confederate officials during the Civil War.

Another favorite tree is the Abraham Block pecan. Block and members of his family were the first permanent Jewish settlers in Arkansas. Block came to Washington in 1823 and began building his family's Federal-style home. Block had served in the War of 1812 and was often referred to as Captain Block. He heard from a cousin in St. Louis about booming trade with Mexico along the Southwest Trail. Washington was a trade center on the trail.

Block and his wife Fanny had married in Richmond, Va. He left his wife and children behind to move to Washington and become established as a merchant. The family moved to Washington in the early 1830s. The pecan tree likely was planted about that time. In 1959, this house was the first restoration project undertaken by the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation. The exterior was returned to its original design in 1987.

The house, completed in about 1832, was donated to the foundation by Edwin Catts. It's now known as the Block-Catts house.

Another big tree is the Black-Bowie black walnut. It's in a grove of walnut trees next to the site where blacksmith James Black made the Bowie knife. Black often used black walnut in handles.

Bowie was one of 10 children of Reason and Elve Bowie, who moved from Kentucky to Louisiana. The father served in the American Revolution. Jim Bowie's older brother Rezin (who had a twin brother named Rhesa) designed a knife in 1826 after Jim Bowie had his knife snapped in a fight at Alexandria, La. The new design proved successful in 1827 in a fight known as the Natchez sandbar fight. Jim Bowie killed his opponent.

Rezin Bowie said Black significantly improved the design. In 1838 correspondence, Rezin said: "The improvement in its fabrication and the state of perfection which it has since acquired from experienced cutlers was not brought about through my agency."

Jim Bowie married Ursula Maria de Veramendi in 1831 in Texas about the time the Black version of the knife was given to him. It might have been a wedding present from his brother. Another brother, John Bowie, later did land deals at Washington.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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