lone cottonwood / lone tree
Huge tree that stood between Lakes Henry and Thompson and supplied seedlings for pioneer plantings
“We bore southeast around the meadows to the lone cottonwood tree which was two feet in diameter and about fifty feet high, on the bank of Lake Henry…” – Delos Perry, 1922.
The earliest settlers in Kingsbury County recorded that “Lake Henry had but one tree,” a huge cottonwood that supplied seed and seedlings for planting. Said to be at least fifty feet tall in 1879, the tree could be seen for miles around in the early years, and it was used as a navigation landmark even before Charles Ingalls pointed it out to the family as they approached Silver Lake camp. The following is from the By the Shores of Silver Lake manuscript:
“I think I catch a glimmer of the sun on the water of Silver Lake on the very edge of the sky line ahead. And over at the left, it you look sharp, you can see the ‘lone cottonwood.’ It is the only big tree between the Sioux and the Jim rivers on the line of the railroad. It stands between the twin lakes Henry and Thompson and it can be seen for forty miles when the air is right. Those lakes are 3 miles southwest of Silver Lake; nine miles northwest is Spirit Lake.”
The Lone Tree stood on the southeast shore of Lake Henry, which is north of Lake Thompson. Over the years, roadways have been relocated, added, and built up, and your drive “between the lakes” today isn’t at all the same drive Laura and Almanzo would have experienced. Charles Ingalls would have cut across claims from his own homestead and connected to a traveled route close to the west shore of Lake Henry, something that doesn’t exist today. The part of Twin Lakes Road east of Highway 25 (the gravel road with rocks on each side, where water practically laps at your car from each side of the road) definitely wasn’t there in the nineteenth century. So how do you find the spot where the Lone Cottonwood once stood?
Once stood?! Yes, the Lone Tree is no longer there. Although there are many living in Kingsbury County who remember climbing on and seeing the tree in all its glory forty or fifty years ago, it was struck by lightning in the 1970s and half of the tree fell into Lake Henry; the original tree forked into two halves. Prior to the lightning strike, the circumference of the tree was said to be such that six men could barely hold hands around the trunk! An early 1900s newspaper article said it was fifty feet or more in circumference. In the 1980s, the Lone Cottonwood was photographed by a Mitchell, South Dakota, photographer, and this one image appeared in prints and postcards. These postcards are still sold at several Laura Ingalls Wilder museums and gift shops.
During a season of high water and heavy flooding in the 1990s, the Lone Cottonwood finally met its match, and it tumbled into Lake Henry. The shoreline has changed a bit in the quarter century since then, so no massive trunk is visible lying in the water.
In the summer of 2014, the current owner of the property took a friend and me to the exact spot where the Lone Cottonwood once stood. Since the site is private property, please don’t trespass. Luckily, another cottonwood has sprung up in the spot, and you can see it as you drive west on Twin Lakes Road from 438th Avenue where it ends at Lake Thompson. Just before you get to the campground on the north side of the road, look for the sign that says “Twin Beaches Game Preserve No Shooting.” You’ll see a tall, thin tree right on the shoreline. That’s the spot. If you drive as far as the old barn, you’ve gone too far. In the photos above, note that there are still little cottonwoods growing all around this lone tree.
Lone Cottonwood / Lone Tree (SSL 7, 29; TLW 27; PG)