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A Mystery Tree Grows In Chapel Hill

Parth Shah

For most people, taking care of the front yard means cutting the grass every few weeks.

But for Bill Massengale, lawn care involves looking after the lofty California coastal redwood growing in the front yard of his law office on Columbia Street.

“When we bought the place we were told that the only thing we had to do was to make sure nothing happens to the redwood,” Massengale says. “It’s one of my chief duties in life."

Standing over 120-feet tall, the redwood’s maroon bark is seen towering over its neighboring trees, distinctly marking Massengale’s office from the other buildings that line the street.

But how did this giant, unusual tree get here?

“Nobody seemed to know how that tree got planted,” says Botanist and Chapel Hill old-timer Ken Moore. He says the redwood first caught his curiosity back in the 1960s when he arrived in Chapel Hill as a graduate student. “Everyone seemed to take it for granted and no one knows for certain when and by whom it was planted."

That’s when Moore started tracing the tree's history.

He says the story begins when W.C. Coker, UNC's first botanist, visited the redwoods in California in 1909 with then-President Francis Venable.

"Somehow either Coker brought back seeds or Venable brought back seeds,” Moore says. “Somewhere is the notion that there were a hundred that were planted in town and shared with people up and down the east coast."

The redwood is located at the bend of Columbia Street where the road splits into North Columbia and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Even though it's at one of the most trafficked roads in Chapel Hill, many people don’t see the redwood because it’s hidden away by the curve of the road. But Moore says the tree would have been on prime real estate in the 1910s, the time period he estimates the tree was planted.

"Just looking where the tree is, Columbia Street, that was a major entrance to Chapel Hill and the University," he says.

Moore has a theory about why the tree was planted. Across from the redwood on the other side of the street there’s a longleaf pine, a species of tree that once dominated the southeastern United States before they were clear-cut for lumber. Like the redwood, the longleaf pine is an evergreen.

“Maybe Coker and Venable said this would be an interesting entrance if we had an iconic east-coast evergreen on the left and an iconic west-coast evergreen on the right,” he says.

As the town inevitably continues to develop, Massengale hopes more people get to see the redwood: “I would like everyone to see it. As big as it is, it’s really quite invisible.”

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