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Published May 01, 2009, 12:00 AM

‘Honking tree’ saw a lot of history

An older couple climbed out of a small white pickup along the Minnesota Highway 61 Expressway Thursday morning.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

An older couple climbed out of a small white pickup along the Minnesota Highway 61 Expressway Thursday morning.

The man, white-haired, looked into the median where the “honking tree” lay toppled in the fog.

“Gotta go see our old tree,” said Jon Anderson, 65, of Two Harbors.

Anderson held a wreath of red berries in his hand. As traffic hissed by on the wet pavement, he eyed the old white pine’s stump.

“Gonna put a wreath on it,” Anderson said.

For Jon and Debbie Anderson, as for thousands of others, the fact that vandals had felled the landmark pine sometime the night before was unthinkable. Plenty of mature white pines tower over the landscape of Lake County, but this one was a geographic icon.

“The way it got its name — you were close to home when you saw that tree,” Anderson said. “Everyone honked because they were almost home.”

Thus, the honking tree.

It was spared at the orders of Charlie Hensley, chief inspector for the Highway 61 Expressway project in the early 1960s.

“He used to sit in this area to have lunch,” said John Bray, regional spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Bray had arrived at the honking tree shortly after the Andersons on Thursday morning.

“Charlie cared about the environment before everyone else did,” Bray said.

Jon Anderson looked left and right for traffic, then strode across the highway and placed his wreath on the stump. The berries provided the only splash of color on this drab morning save for Bray’s chartreuse safety vest.

Throughout the morning, others came to see and touch the tree. They came as coastal residents would come to lament the passing of a beached whale, approaching in silence and humility, shaking their heads in bewilderment.

I’m no dendrochronologist, but I tried counting the rings on that stump and came up with something close to 100. The honking tree was a seedling before cars were common on Northland roads. The tree was a healthy sapling before the first road probed the North Shore in 1924.

Soldiers passed that pine coming home to Two Harbors from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. The pine pre-dated the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps and lampreys in Lake Superior.

And now, hacked down in the night.

I hope they use some of the lumber in that old pine to build a bench for the old guys to sit on in Two Harbors. Put it out on the breakwall at Agate Bay, or in a city park, or outside of Judy’s Café.

And why not plant a new honking tree somewhere close to the stump with the Andersons’ wreath on it.

You know what they say: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is today.

SAM COOK is a News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332.