Magnolia Springs, Ala. Inspiration Oak, a huge, historic live oak that drew tens of thousands of visitors during an attempt to save it from chain-saw damage, now stands as the eerie centerpiece of its park.
At night, lights illuminate the skeletal outlines of the 500-year-old oak in a ghostly shroud. The tree, dating to the voyage of Christopher Columbus, is without leaves or the cloak of Spanish moss it once had.
Its massive limbs 192 feet from tip to tip are shedding bark and some have fallen. A chain-link fence keeps people back from the treasured oak so they won't get injured by falling debris.
Drawn by the Inspiration Oak and the emotional fight to save it after it was sawed in a land dispute a decade ago visitors have come from as far away as the Auckland Islands, stopping at the 2.8-acre park while also visiting Alabama's nearby beaches and Mobile Bay hideaways.
Live oaks are revered not only for their long life span, but because their leaves stay green year-round, providing constant shade for picnics and photo backdrops. Youngsters swing and play on the huge low-slung branches.
Inspiration Oak is dead, but there's been no attempt to cut it down because people still come to see it.
"We're not going to do anymore cutting on it," says park manager Elaine Gill, showing a guest register with names of all the park's visitors. Gill said the park is more popular with tourists in the winter than summer, perhaps because of the sultry heat.
World and local maps on the gift shop walls have pins stuck in the many cities represented by the tourists.
"We had some monks from Tibet who were visiting Spring Hill College in Mobile," Gill says.
State forester Gibb Burke gives the girdled tree another five years before it starts losing some of its massive limbs.
"That's just a guess. It's not going to last 20 years," Burke says. A remnant of the old trunk 27 feet in circumference probably will be all that's left once the tree decays.
Massive live oaks abound on the Alabama coast, including one in nearby Daphne that's known as the site where Gen. Andrew Jackson addressed his troops in November 1814.
"He climbed up in the forks of the oak tree," Burke said.
But it's the Inspiration Oak on U.S. 98, between Fairhope and Magnolia Springs, that still stirs emotions, particularly among those who tried to save it.
The 65-foot-tall tree was girdled around its base with a chain saw when the previous owner of the land got into a dispute over the price Baldwin County officials offered to buy the land for a park.
Stan Foote of Fairhope, who led the fight to save Inspiration Oak, said no one was ever arrested for girdling the tree, reportedly because the act was done for the person who owned the property. The dispute between the landowner and the county later was settled in court.
Foote, now 84, does not regret the attempt to save the tree.
"If I try and lose, at least I know I tried," he says.
Foresters pitched in, grafting over the chain saw wound, in hopes the tree could heal. The grafts, made from live oak twigs, worked for a while. But the cut had severed the tissue that allowed the tree to grow.
"It's such a unique species, we couldn't just stand by and not try to save it," says forestry consultant Stan Revis of Ono Island. "We kept it alive a couple of years."
In the initial effort, a water spraying system was installed and a greenhouse erected around the base of the tree. A 140 foot well was drilled to provide water to a sprinkler mounted atop a telephone pole.
About 15,000 visitors a month came to witness the tree-saving effort when it first began.
Foote says a Save the Tree Committee raised $26,000 in donations that allowed the county to buy the land.
"It was all donated," Foote says. "The tree is a symbol of Baldwin County heritage."