RIDGWAY -- The tree was already big in 1949. Beyond big, truly. Even "enormous" doesn't really convey the gargantuan size of the massive, silent sentry keeping watch over the Cox & Son Funeral Home in Ridgway.
The concept of what today are termed "champion trees" didn't really exist at that time, but regardless, Charlie and Betty Cox, who had just purchased the property that year, knew the giant pin oak already was beyond the ordinary.
"I'll tell you an old story my dad used to tell all the time," says Tony Cox, Charlie and Betty's son and the current owner of the funeral home and property.
"They came here in 1949. That wall wasn't here then; that was built on later. There was just this big yard, and a lot of people would walk across it from this side of town, going uptown every day.
"There was an old man by the name of, or at least people called him, 'Uncle Jimmy Abell.' He was an older guy in 1949."
As Cox tells the story, it's easy to visualize Ridgway 70 years younger, with neighbors traveling short distances on foot and stopping for casual conversation.
"Uncle Jimmy was walking across the yard one day, and Dad asked him, 'Uncle Jimmy, how old would you reckon this tree is?'
"Jimmy wasn't a man of very many words; he just didn't talk much. He just said, 'Don't know, son. It was that big when I was a kid,' and just kept walking."
Cox, recalling the tree's history with his mother, Betty, said in 1986, someone from the state contacted him. A person came to the property and explained that there was a good chance it was the largest known pin oak in the entire state. And, it was.
Cox still has a certificate from the state acknowledging a year later that the tree was declared the Illinois State Big Tree champion pin oak. The measurements at that time are almost hard to believe. Its circumference at 4.5 feet above ground was 206.5 inches, or more than 17 feet. It was 86 feet tall.
And, up until recent years, it held onto the title. The Feb. 29, 2012 so-called "Leap Day Tornado," which killed 8 people in Harrisburg before causing significant damage in Ridgway, likewise was damaging to the tree.
"The tornado did a lot of damage, but it already was in decline," Cox said. "I've spent a fortune over the years trying to keep this tree healthy, because it's something special. An arborist I had look at the tree told me the worst thing that happened to it was concrete foundations from the other buildings around it meant it only could get nutrients through the roots on one side, and that was hard on it. But, there's nothing I could have done about that."
He said the tree is estimated to be between 250 and 300 years old, meaning it likely sprouted before the 13 colonies fought for their independence.
He and Betty, as they reminisced, said the champion pin oak wasn't always the lone giant of the neighborhood.
"There was another one, not this big, but almost as big over here in this corner before the garage was put on," Cox said.
"There was one there and there was one where the coffee room's built on," Betty said.
"I remember when those were taken down. They were big, but not as big as this thing," Cox said.
To get some idea, Cox told another story about one time in the funeral home when suddenly, the ground shook violently.
He ran out, expecting first that an earthquake had happened. As it turned out, the tree had dropped a limb. The tree was so large, though, that the limb it dropped was the size of an mature "normal-sized" tree itself.
Betty owns a couple of wooden bowls made from that limb that a friend and neighbor turned on a lathe.
Over the years, other-tree sized limbs occasionally would fall as the tree slowly declined in health, and earlier this year, Cox had the remaining limbs cut off the tree.
The trunk still juts up high into the sky, though nowhere nearly as tall as its stature in its prime.
Cox said he's had various suggestions made to him about what to do with the trunk, but recently he had a sign documenting the tree's history with the Cox family and its status as one-time champion pin oak made and installed next to the tree.
"I think it might be an interesting point, if people were in the area, for them to come and see. Not a huge deal, or anything, but just a little bit of history about Gallatin County," Cox said.
A lot of memories are tied to that tree, Betty said.
"I couldn't tell you the number of young boys and young girls who played under that tree through all the years, but there were a lot. It was just a part of the neighborhood," she said.