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The Witness Oak: Longstanding tree has roots in county history

The Witness Oak with the Back Creek estate seen through the branches.

William Paine/SWT
Mary Catherine Stout in the history room showing a carving of the image of the Witness Oak made from a fallen branch of the same tree. The pins on her apron were given to her by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in recognition of her efforts in educating people by sharing the history of her abode.

By WILLIAM PAINE

william.paine@southwesttimes.com

This week’s neighbor has lived in the New River Valley long enough to know everyone who lives here in the Virginia Highlands. In fact, our neighbor has been here long enough to know every person of European descent who has ever gazed upon it.

This is the story of the Witness Oak, which has grown by the bank of Back Creek at the foot of Cloyd’s Mountain for more than 500 years.

Think of it, when this tree was a sapling, Henry the 8th was King of England. The Witness Oak had been growing for more than 200 years before Ingles Ferry, the first white settlement in Pulaski County, was established in 1762.

It witnessed the intense fighting that took place between Union and Confederate forces on that fateful day May 9, 1864, at the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain. It’s likely that more than a few Civil War era shot slugs remain in the trunk of this enormous tree.

The Witness Oak also survived a lightning strike. Paradoxically, it may have survived because of the lightning strike.

As Mary Catherine Stout tells it, the Witness Oak was likely not harvested by the Cloyd Family because a tree struck by lightning is thought to have wood of lesser quality.

Stout should know, the Witness Oak stands on her property at the base of Cloyd’s Mountain, where almost 155 years ago the Union troops made their encampment. As owner of the property, Mary Catherine Stout has more than just a casual interest in the Witness Oak. She keeps a notebook full of photographs and memorabilia dedicated to it.

“The whole book is about the oak,” said Stout. “It’s my baby. You know, like when you show baby pictures?”

At its highest point, her “baby” rises 68’4” from the ground. If Mary Catherine Stout stands above five foot it’s not by much, but her incandescent personality more than makes up for her slight stature. Upon entry into the Stout house, Mary Catherine directs visitors to the history room, which contains an array of items gathered from the property over the years. In amongst the arrow heads and Civil War era paraphernalia, there is a carving of the Witness Oak made from a fallen piece of the tree.

“I’ve told people about the March 24, 2018, snowstorm that took a large branch off and a man came to bring me this that he made from that branch,” explained Mary Catherine.

The snowstorm that knocked out power for many residences of the New River Valley also broke a big branch off the Witness Oak. Because of the loss, the tree’s drip line, which is the outermost circumference of the tree canopy, was lessened. The official drip line of the Witness Oak is now 107’8”, which is still what most would consider a very large tree. The circumference of the trunk, which is measured four and a half feet above a tree’s base, measures 23’8” around. Mary Catherine knows these measurements by heart. She and her husband Jim have tended to the tree for more than 40 years.

“My husband and I are just caretakers,” said Stout. “I’ve given many talks about the Witness Oak because there are other people on this earth that love this tree as much as I do.”

Mary Catherine’s connection to the Witness Oak stems from her deep connection to the land around it. She spent her very early years living with her parents and sister at Oakland, the mansion built by Joseph Cloyd in 1847, which is near her present day residence. Her family moved to a little house in Newbern when the owners of Oakland had to settle the estate but Mary Catherine’s dad, a dairyman, needed more room.

In sight of the Oakland mansion stands another very large antebellum house known as Back Creek, which was built by Joseph Cloyd’s grandfather, also named Joseph Cloyd, in 1790. At the time Mary Catherine’s family lived in Newbern, a physician named Frank Brammer lived in Back Creek and apparently wanted to downsize.

“So he and my father, George Farris, decided to trade houses,” Stout explained. “So he ended up in that little Newbern house on Wilderness Road and my family ended up right smack dab across from where we started out.”

Back Creek is visible from Mary Katherine’s house and Oakland is visible from the Back Creek estate. This was done purposely as the entire property was once owned by the Cloyd family.

Though they eventually had to move out of the Back Creek house, before her parent’s demise, they deeded Mary Catherine the adjacent property where the Witness Oak now stands. There, the industrious young woman began building her own house, stone by stone. She had finished with the initial structure, which was relatively small, when she met Jim.

“It was our first date and he wanted to impress me,” Mary Catherine related. “He said, ‘What would you like to do? Go to Dinner? Dancing?’ I was quiet for about 10 seconds because you know I can’t stay quiet for much longer than that and I said ‘Do you want to know what I’d really like to do?’ I had the house almost totally finished but I needed some more rocks for the chimney. I said, ‘I’d like to go pick up rocks.’ That poor man has been picking up rocks for 40 years.”

Since marrying, the Stouts have added significant editions to their stone house about every 10 years or so. Over time, they’ve added a garage, a barn and various rooms to their dwelling. The inside of Stout house immediately reveals Mary Catherine’s penchant for collecting historically significant items. The history room is merely the first stop on Mary Catherine’s magical history tour. In most every room one can find rare artifacts including a 10-foot-long apple butter paddle, an equally long topping fork for hay bales, a century old dining table, a corn crib latch made at the old Cloyd family’s blacksmith shop and a small bucket used by soldiers to carry their food and drink.

The soldiers that roamed these fields 155 years ago are foremost on Mary Catherine’s mind as the re-enactment Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain is set to take place in a few days’ time. As such, Mary Catherine will doubtless play the role of hostess for many of those attending, and most especially the children, as she obviously takes great delight in telling them about the history of her home place.

“There were more than 6,000 Union troops where we’re standing and over that beautiful green hill over there, were 2,400 confederates and home guard,” said Stout. “They clashed. It was a heavy fight with 1,200 casualties.”

The re-enactment of the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain will take place Saturday, May 4, and Sunday, May 5, at 2 p.m. Spectators will need to come early though, because parking will only be permitted at the New River Valley Fairgrounds, where tickets to the re-enactment can be purchased. A shuttle will take people to the battlefield from there. The Stout property will have “living exhibits” that weekend demonstrating what life was like those many years ago.

The Oak tree which bore witness to that battle will witness yet another re-enactment of the events of that bloody day. If future caretakers are as mindful as Mary Catherine, this great White Oak may even live to witness the 200th anniversary of the Cloyd Mountain conflict.

“Her good side, her side for pictures, is toward the house,” said Stout. “So every time I step out, I see that beautiful tree. I come down and weed underneath it. There are ferns there, Bloodroots there, Jack in the Pulpits wildflowers. I try to keep weeds and stuff away. I had the surgery on my hand the other day so I haven’t been able to weed this year. But it will have my TLC soon.”

It’s clear that this patch of land, which was once the scene of a hellish battle, is now a little slice of paradise for Mary Catherine and her “baby” the Witness Oak. Looking at this hardy and perhaps even elegant specimen of native flora, I couldn’t help but remark on its beauty.

“I’m so glad you respect it,” said Mary Catherine. “That makes me happy.”

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