LAFAYETTE TWP. — “Watch out for falling acorns, they’re pretty big,” said Joe Fugate as he led the way to the northern red oak that towers over his yard and house.
Its topmost branches stretch almost 110 feet into the sky, and the tree, thought to be a spindly sapling in 1776, now boasts a girth of 188 inches. The measurements were enough to earn first place in Medina County’s annual Big Tree Contest, sponsored by the county Soil and Water Conservation District and The Gazette.
Fugate and his wife, Karen, who have lived in the shade of the tree for 31 years, promote the conservation of green space. The luxuriant sprawl of bushes, flowers and trees across their property attest to that.
This year, when the conservation district announced it would be looking for the biggest northern red oak tree in the county, the Fugates decided to enter.
Jim Dieter and Beth Schnabel started the Big Tree Contest 10 years ago. They have had as many as 90 entries. This year there were seven to consider.
“Beth and I have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of the contest,” said Dieter, who is a district technician with the conservation district.
Schnabel is an education specialist with the agency.
“The idea is to promote knowledge of the trees around us,” he said.
Each year the contest features a different tree. In past years, they’ve searched for white oak and shagbark hickory, wild black cherry and northern catalpa. Points are given for circumference, height and crown spread. The tree with the most total points wins. Entries begin to arrive in February and March. The conservation district staff begins to evaluate them — no small task when some of the trees are in the middle of the woods.
“We will go out to measure all the entries,” he said, adding that could be challenging when directions to the tree in question are vague. Others mark the tree clearly by tying a ribbon around it.
“People are very proud of their trees,” Dieter said.
The Fugates thought they might have to forfeit the prize when Dieter called to congratulate them on winning the contest. Months ago when the tree was evaluated for the contest, they discovered a split branch that threatened the tree’s health. Fugate decided to have the branch removed to save the tree, even if it meant he might lose the contest. But even with the trimming, the Fugates’ tree still won.
As he walked across the yard, he pointed out other specimens in the yard, a sturdy white oak and two wild cherries.
“The white oak is what they called a hanging tree,” Fugate said, indicating a big branch extending to the side. “It made it easy for them to ride underneath and throw the rope over it.” As far as he knows, no one ever met their maker under this particular tree.
He stepped carefully over the small dark cherries scattered thickly throughout the grass like an outlandish dot-to-dot puzzle.
“The cherries ferment and the birds literally get drunk on those,” he said, a soft grin on his face as he described the mornings he and Karen awaken to a raucous chorus of feasting grackles and their feathered friends.
And those huge acorns the red oak drops? Joe and Karen drill holes in some of them to create holiday garlands, but Joe said he also gathers bushels of them to set out for the squirrels in winter — “They never remember where they hide their stash of nuts,” he said, laughing.
The Fugates will receive a plaque engraved with the northern red oak’s dimensions, a $25 gift certificate for the conservation district’s spring seedling sale and two tickets to the agency’s annual meeting.
The awards will be presented at the conservation district’s banquet Sept. 29 at University Tech Park, 6300 Technology Lane.
Contact Judy A. Totts at email@example.com.