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cottonwood tree

A tree of the poplar kind (Populus spp.), found in the United States, especially in the south-west. — Webster, 1882

Those big cottonwoods in front of the Ingalls residence are being removed. The trees have served their time and would have soon started to decay. — De Smet News, 1911

Also from the 1911 De Smet News is the following interesting story about cottonwood trees: What is thought to be the largest tree in De Smet is a cottonwood in A.W. Hoyt’s yard that measures seven and a half feet in circumference ten feet from the ground. This tree was set out by David Floyd about thirty years ago. The next largest tree is in W.S. Andrews’ front yard, also a cottonwood measuring seven feet. This tree is now being cut down, being past its usefulness as a shade tree. The cottonwood is a rapid growing tree and was quite generally planted in the early days, but it is too short lived to be of much value and no one has planted them during recent years.

Lest people wonder why nobody measured Pa’s cottonwoods at the time, I’m sure that trees “so far” out of town wouldn’t have been worth fooling with.

The cottonwood (Populus fremontii) is a tree that grows where it can keep its feet wet, i.e. next to a slough. The western side of Charles Ingalls’ homestead provided – and still provides – the perfect habitat. If you look around next time you’re at Ingalls Homestead, there are other cottonwoods still growing around the perimeter of the land, not just those five trees in the northwest corner where the historical marker is located. I’ve seen photos from when most of the 160 acres was in hay, and I’d imagine anything planted farther in just didn’t stand a chance, and with the sweeping center pivot irrigation system that once was in use on the land, any tree that might have been in the way would have been chopped down when irrigation was installed.

Everything I’ve studied says that the life expectancy of a cottonwood is 150 years maximum, and that a 100 year old tree is oooold. If the trees on Ingalls Homestead are indeed some of the ones Pa planted, then they are already more than 130 years old (if he planted actual trees, and updated to reflect 1880 to 2014). They’re not likely to be around for too many more generations to enjoy, except in photographs. I hardly ever see postcards of the Lone Cottonwood anymore, yet 15 years ago that was a hot item. I can’t even find anyone that can take me to the exact spot the Lone Cottonwood grew between lakes Henry and Thompson; do you know?

Nobody asked me, but I’d be taking softwood cuttings from those trees every spring and rooting them like crazy, and I’d be collecting the seed from female trees and planting those as well. I’d be nurturing the volunteer trees that spring up by the road, and moving some of them to the pageant grounds across the road, where they’d get less competition from their elders. Don’t be waiting 25 years and then thinking something should have been done, and I don’t mean selling twigs or little disks of dead wood…

My “Pa’s” Cottonwood Tree. I used to say that I’d pay good money for one of “Pa’s” cottonwood tree clones or offspring, and I bet a lot of other people would too. In 2004, a De Smet friend picked up a small leafy bit from one of the corner trees and stuck it in a five-gallon bucket of dirt, and it rooted! At the time, I lived in Montana, and my husband and I drove the tree home with us the next summer. We were in the process of moving, so I left the tree in a large pot until it was eventually planted in the ground several years later…. in south Georgia! It is now ten years old and taller than our two-story house, measuring 24 inches in circumference, four feet from the ground, on Laura’s birthday in 2014. For comparison, note that early Kingsbury County settlers reported that the Lone Cottonwood was about fifty feet tall and measured 2 feet in diameter in the summer of 1879. That means the Lone Cottonwood measured six feet in circumference, so my tree has some more growing to do!

Photo at right was taken from about two feet above ground level, looking up into the branches one winter day.

Trees planted by Charles Ingalls on his homestead. According to final proof papers submitted by Charles Ingalls in May 1886, he stated that he had broken sixty of the 160 acres of land during his required residency, planting “apple trees, bearing; plum trees, bearing; small fruit in abundance; about 6000 forest trees some of them 6 years old.” Note that no wheat, oats, or corn is recorded, although Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that Pa planted these on the claim. His claim file seems to suggest that Mr. Ingalls planted trees to satisfy the acreage under cultivation. Shelter belt plantings of forest trees were mentioned many times in Kingsbury County papers in the early 1880s, with suggestion made that all claims – no matter what the type – were planted with three or more rows of trees around the perimeter of the land. Under the Timber Culture laws, cottonwood trees were considered suitable timber.

It’s possible that Charles Ingalls planted so many trees because he planned to take advantage of a law that went into effect in 1883, that for each five acres of land planted to trees, an owner could exempt 40 acres of land for taxation. Once final proof was obtained in 1886, this could have meant considerable savings. Note, too, from the quote at the top of the page, that in all likelihood the Ingallses planted cottonwood trees in front of their Third Street house, the ones that were removed in 1911.

In manuscript and published By the Shores of Silver Lake (see Chapter 29, “The Shanty on the Claim”), Charles Ingalls brings small cottonwood trees from those that had seeded around the Lone Cottonwood, enough to plant them clear around the shanty. The story is sightly different in Laura’s handwritten Pioneer Girl memoir. She wrote that Pa broke a strip of land around the shanty and he planted the seeds of cottonwoods all around; no number is specified. The existing trees on the Memorial Society marker corner are said to be the ones planted around the shanty, one for each family member, yet the description of the shanty location in Pioneer Girl and By the Shores of Silver Lake suggest that the house wasn’t located on the corner sand-hill, but was to the east on a low rise of land east of Pa’s well.

cottonwood, tree (LHP 16, 20; BPC 33, 35; SSL 7, 29; TLW 27; THGY 19-20, 30, 33; PG), see also Lone Tree
planting trees on Charles Ingalls’ homestead (SSL 29; PG)