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Massive Monterey cypress: Ashland's first Tree of the Year in 1988

The West Side School (where Briscoe School is now) in 1915. The red arrow points to the 10-year-old Monterey Cypress. (photo at City of Ashland website; from the Terry Skibby collection)
This photo of the Monterey Cypress in front of Briscoe School was taken in 2020. It lost many large branches since 2001, but it is still massive. (photo by Peter Finkle)

I have been impressed by the huge Monterey cypress in front of Briscoe School ever since I moved to Ashland in 1991.

As a friend told me, "Every time I drive by this tree, I am awestruck. And if I have a visitor, I always make a point to show it to them."

Did you know that Ashland has a Tree of the Year? Did you know that Ashlanders vote each year to choose it?

Our 1988 Tree of the Year grows at the corner of North Main Street and Laurel Street. This corner was part of early Ashland, all the way back to the 1860s. This is not the oldest tree in Ashland, but it has lived more than 115 years. The sign on the tree says it was planted in 1905 by Ross Eliason. Ross was an early Ashlander and an active member of the First Methodist Church across the street from the Monterey cypress tree.

We are fortunate to have a 1915 photo of the old West Side School, which was at this site before Briscoe School. On the left edge of the photo is a small tree (see arrow), which must be the young 10-year-old Monterey cypress.

I visited the tree with arborist Casey Roland who told me that he climbed way up into this tree to prune it a couple times when he worked for Tom Myers at Upper Limb It. I learned from Roland that when he prunes a Monterey cypress, he cuts as few branches as possible. This is because the branches tend to overlap as they grow. When this happens, the branches support and protect each other.

"The fuller you have the canopy, the less likely they are to break in a strong wind or after snowfall," he said.

Heavy snow did severely damage the 1988 Tree of the Year sometime in the early 2000s. You can see the cuts where many large lower branches had to be removed, and even some of the upper branches had to be cut back. The massive trunk now stands out more than it once did. The Monterey cypress is not “the tree is once was,” but it is still quite impressive.

The natural home for Monterey cypress trees is only along the central coast of California, near Monterey. Now you know how it got its name. These are popular with photographers because the strong coastal breezes cause them to be gnarled in their growth patterns.

They now grow in many countries around the world. They prefer cool summers and coastal areas, but are adaptable, even to the Ashland climate. You can see another massive Monterey cypress at the corner of Wimer Street and Scenic Drive. It was our 2004 Tree of the Year.

Why are these Ashland cypress trees so large? According to the San Francisco Botanical Garden website, "Monterey cypress that are planted in watered, protected areas away from the ocean grow bigger, taller and straighter."

Regarding water, Roland believes that both the 1988 and 2004 Trees of the Year are growing above either a spring or an underground stream that nourishes their roots.

Let's take a short Ashland history trip. This tree has lived through generations of Ashland students passing under its branches. However, even before the tree was planted a school was here – in 1872. That is when Methodist minister J.H. Skidmore founded the Ashland Academy, a two-year college, at this site.

The Academy failed financially, closing in 1879, before reopening in 1882 with four teachers and 42 students. This 'life' of the college only lasted until 1890. However, Ashland's college has had as many lives as a cat. It finally settled in 1926 at its current location on Siskiyou Boulevard – first as a Normal School (teacher's college), then a State College and now as Southern Oregon University.

Skidmore's Academy building here was replaced by West Side School in 1890, which you see in the 1915 photo. Briscoe School was built in 1949. Still here, it is not currently used as a public school due to Ashland's declining elementary school age population.

Briscoe School had a school song, written by Jill Joos Rothman. It was called "Briscoe: Roots to the Future." If you attended Briscoe, you may remember singing it. Here are the words to the chorus:

Roots to the future, seeds in the past.

Branches reaching to the sky.

Knowledge we gain here will last and last.

Briscoe will carry you inside.

Briscoe will carry you inside.

There is our 1988 Tree of the Year again: "Branches reaching to the sky."

Finally, I would like to introduce the Tree of the Year program for readers not familiar with it. The city Tree Commission was established by Ashland City Council in 1983. A few years later in 1988, the commission began our annual Tree of the Year tradition.

Each year, the Tree Commission collects nominations from residents. Commissioners visit the nominated trees and narrow the field to a few finalists. Then "we the people" make the final choice. Tree commissioners have told me that very few people vote for Tree of the Year. I hope my columns will increase interest and participation!

During the next few years, I will feature each Tree of the Year with its own article. I will learn from arborists, historical research, tree websites and neighbors, then share with you what I learn.

Peter Finkle writes about Ashland history, neighborhoods, public art and more. See WalkAshland.com for his Ashland stories.