What secrets does this 340-year-old oak tree hold?

A tree that grew in the forest that would have given the Forest City its name had to be felled because of rot in its trunk, but its wood will be salvaged so it lives on for generations.

When this tree was a seedling, the region was being shared by several Indigenous nations

This 340-year-old oak tree on Western University campus has seen a lot of history, but had to come down because it was rotting. (Google Street View, 2015)

It was a mighty giant that grew stronger with each passing year. 

For 340 years, the oak stood about 100 metres from the banks of the Thames River. 

When it was just a sapling, it might have been passed by members of Anishnabek Indigenous nations as they set up a seasonal fishing camp, or perhaps later in its life provided shade for a hunting camp. 

It was part of the vast forest that was visited by nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. 

By the time John Graves Simcoe happened upon the Forks of the Thames in 1793, it was already 115 years old. 

The 12-metre high tree has seen students late to exams, professors rushing to class and countless games of shinny on the outdoor rink that sits in its shadow, right on the curve of Lambton Drive. 
The tree will be air dried for three years before being made into custom furniture or other wooden creations that will be incorporated into Western University's buildings. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Late last year, the tree — either a bur oak or a white oak — had to be taken down. It had been dropping branches for a while, and about a quarter of its trunk had rotted. It was either going to come down naturally, and cause damage, or it would be taken down and turned into something useful.  

Chris McKaskell is the carpenter and artisan who is overseeing the milling of the tree this week.  He also counted the 340 rings that show how old the tree is.

"This is a wonderful situation where a tree has had the opportunity to live its entire life in wonderful surroundings, serving a wonderful purpose in the community," McKaskell said.
Carpenter Chris McKaskell counts the tree rings, which determine how old a tree is. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

"With anything that's made with this tree, there will be a wonderful story." 

McKaskell and his team will cut the three large lumber logs — they're 120 cm in diameter — into flat pieces that will take three years to air-dry. 

There's no rushing this job, McKaskell said, and so no kiln drying. Everything is being done to preserve the lumber as much as possible. 

Eventually, it will be used to make art as well as custom furniture or other wooden creations that will be incorporated into Western University's buildings. 

Some smaller pieces have already been used in the renovation of University College, which is slated to be finished this summer. 

"As we renovate buildings, particularly our core historic buildings, we're trying to incorporate furniture pieces into those buildings," said Mike Lunau, the university's manager of landscape services. 

Mike Lunau, left, and Chris McKaskell with the 340-year-old oak tree. McKaskell said it's an honour to work with such a historic specimen. 'It predates everything we see here,' he said. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

The tree, though an important part of the campus, lived without much fanfare. 

The university wasn't able to find any clear pictures of the tree. It does appear in several Google Street View snapshots but it's tucked away a bit, in the background. 

McKaskell said it's an honour to be working with such a historic tree. 

"It predates everything we see here," he said. "This would have been a very mature oak tree and it would have lived a wonderful life. The story is all here."

About the Author

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.