Oakwood Cemetery Trees Find New Life in Furniture | Local News
After decades, if not a century, of watching over the graves in Oakwood Cemetery, some majestic trees find an afterlife not hewn out of a landfill, but into a home, thanks to the work of a sawmill and a carpentry workshop, a tree service and cemetery administration.
Since December, the rumble and groan of chainsaws and heavy equipment has accelerated, punctuating the quiet rest of Waco Cemetery where more than 38,000 people are buried, part of a comprehensive plan to care for the forest of the cemetery and, in doing so, protect visitors. and guard its stone markers and monuments.
For the cemetery’s general manager, Clint Lynch, it’s a matter of stewardship. For the Dallas tree service, Southern Botanicals, this is an ambitious project requiring some special expertise. For Mesquite Valley Woodcrafts, near Chalk Bluff, it’s a new source of valuable wood. And for dozens of trees, it’s a second life indoors in kitchens, offices, restaurants and homes.
As many Waco homeowners know, last February’s brutal cold killed dozens of trees and snapped the branches of thousands more. At Oakwood Cemetery, which has 2,440 trees across its 165 acres, bad weather has greatly accelerated the impending end of many trees.
“The cemetery started in 1878,” Lynch said. “A lot of trees have had their day. It hurts me to have to cut down a tree, but we have to make sure it’s in good condition and not dangerous.
Faced with balancing a future where more people are cremated rather than buried and a notable past of Waco history, the cemetery board is in the midst of a council study to help develop a plan long-term.
Preserving the cemetery led administrators to enlist the services of Dallas-based Southern Botanicals to remove dead and damaged trees, then prune and maintain the remaining trees for the next five years. As part of its management plan, the company digitally mapped the trees, attaching a numbered, coin-sized metal tag to each one while labeling their species, location and condition. While Southern Botanicals had experience doing cemetery work, particularly with Restland Cemetery in Dallas after a 2019 tornado, company arborist Steve Clary said he was impressed with what he found. in Waco Cemetery.
“It’s amazing in the number of trees here and the species,” Clary said.
Nearly half of the cemetery’s 2,440 trees are live oaks, and the century-old post oaks are among the oldest. The grounds also contain pecans, sycamores, elms and other hardwood species, some of considerable size and age.
Although tall leafy trees and quiet graveyards might seem like a logical match, that’s the view from above. Beneath the surface, graves and coffins cut and confine the root systems of trees, causing issues that can affect their health, Clary said.
Despite their longevity, February 2021 has not been kind. Southern Botanicals teams determined that prolonged frost after a heavy snowfall in January had killed or severely damaged 48 trees, and another 200 had to be pruned.
“The frost has exacerbated all the stress points these trees are under,” Clary said.
The work was both quantitatively and qualitatively difficult. Trunks and branches could not be cut and dropped for fear of breaking surrounding headstones and monuments – a moment that came back to Clary as he worked on a pecan tree near the grave of Sul Ross, former governor of Texas and seventh president of Texas A&M University.
“As Aggie, I wanted to be very, very careful,” he said.
The amount of wood removed from the cemetery led Clary to search for places to dispose of logs and sawdust. He found one outside of Chalk Bluff in Mesquite Valley Woodcrafts, which not only had space for sawdust, but also a small sawmill, wood oven and workshop, as well as an owner. happy to handle native hardwood logs.
Caleb Scarbrough, grandson of a carpenter and former Homestead Heritage apprentice, started his business in 2006, intending to work with native woods like mesquite, oak and walnut. Thinking of securing his own source of wood, he added a small mill and then a vacuum kiln to cut and season the wood.
“I started producing my own wood instead of buying everything,” he said.
With tree service companies looking for an outlet, independent lumber operators and building contractors wanting distinctive touches for homes and restaurants, the wood side of Mesquite Valley Woodcrafts has become an important part activity over the years. Scarbrough and his team offer lumber from as far away as Mexia, while shipping lumber and finished products to all 50 states, Iraq and Israel.
The first load of oak wood arrived several weeks ago, including an 8-foot-long, 2-foot-wide log of sycamore from a tree Scarbrough estimates to be over 150 years old. Where visitors might see trunks and stumps stored around the open-sided mill shed and other outbuildings, Scarbrough sees furniture: four dining tables in an elm log, a table top, then a bench, then a bar top in successive layers to be cut from a pecan nut log.
Mesquite Valley Woodcrafts cuts much of the mesquite, hickory and oak it enters into flat slabs and planks, but quarter-saws woods like white oak and sycamore, dividing a log into wedges and then planks, to highlight the grain of these woods.
In addition to the lines and color of the wood grain, there is the difference between live sapwood and dead heartwood. The wood also exhibits the effect of other living organisms: holes drilled by insects and spattering, dark staining caused by fungi.
It takes weeks and months to dry the wood before it can be worked, and demand keeps the price high. An 8-foot slab of mesquite, one of dozens awaiting shipment to a storage shed, fetches about $800, and two are needed for a typical tabletop.
“Mesquite is more valuable than scrap metal,” Scarbrough said.
Mesquite Valley Woodcrafts produces over 40 kitchen tables and islands, bar tops and benches in a typical year. Some of its lumber goes to carpentry and student projects at nearby Homestead Heritage and some of Mesquite Valley’s Lazy Susans go to Homestead gift shops.
Scarbrough prides itself on making one-of-a-kind parts for homeowners and builders.
“I love creating things of value, producing something exactly what (a client) wanted and it’s the centerpiece of their home,” he said.
In the coming months, some of these coins may continue a story that began more than a century ago as a seed in a Waco cemetery.