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The Davis Meeker Garry oak tree at the Olympia Regional Airport in Tumwater, is not only a site to behold, it is a living bridge to the past and a symbol of its surrounding environmental and cultural history. At an estimated 400- to 600-years-old, this Quercus garryana, Oregon White Oak or Garry oak, is a last remnant of an oak savannah and a witness to the many people who have been traveling by during its lifetime.

The Davis-Meeker oak is a holdout from an oak prairie that once stretched across what is now Olympia Regional Airport and private homes. The open grassy terrain of oak trees and prairie grass was one that would have experienced intentional burns. Coastal Salish and other Native American tribes managed the land there by burning the abundant grasses, returning nutrients to the soil and giving a growing advantage to root foods, camas included. The Garry oak likewise took advantage of the lack of competition from surrounding brush and fir trees and grew deep roots and dropped acorns, which were gathered and baked.

Tumwater Garry Oak Oversees Travelers on Cowlitz Trail, Oregon Trail and Highway 99

The Cowlitz Trail ran through Bush Prairie, as it was later named, leading Native American travelers on a north-south trajectory.

“The Cowlitz Trail is thousands of years old,” says Ray Gleason, arborist and forest scientist. “People were passing this trail and watched that tree germinate. That tree didn’t even exist when that trail started. Its parents existed.”

The Davis Meeker Garry oak has garnered attention at different times in its life including being protected from road widening and being placed on the Tumwater Register of Historic Places. Photo credit: Rebecca Sanchez

As a slow-growing species, the Davis Meeker oak has seen a lot throughout its hundreds of years. It would have experienced many generations of people hunting, gathering food and possibly meeting beneath it.

“All of the native communities used that trail to trade,” Gleason says. “It was a major trade thoroughfare. That’s the Puyallup Tribe, the Squaxin Tribe, the Nisqually Tribe, the Chehalis Tribe… the Yakima Tribe.”

The British Hudson Bay Company even trod along this trail. Pioneers coming off of the Oregon Trail, such as early Tumwater residents Michael T. Simmons and George and Isabella Bush in 1845, would likely have passed by the oak too. George Bush’s land claim was just southeast of the tree, within a walk. The tree sits at a significant point where the trail turned from a northwesterly direction to a more northerly one. Though much of the Cowlitz Trail and the Oregon Trail is now paved as Highway 99, the tree is still a way-marker for commuters headed south to Tenino and beyond.

Map overlays align the location of the Cowlitz Trail to the tree (see red dot near the Y in the word Olympia). The tree sits in a significant point where the trail turned from a northwesterly direction to a more northerly one. Photo courtesy: Google Earth satellite imagery and an 1854 Government Land Office Survey, Bureau of Land Management overlay

Attention and Protection Olympia’s Davis Meeker Garry Oak

The Davis Meeker Garry oak has garnered attention at different times in connection to its proximity to the paved road. In 1984 Highway 99 was being widened from Tumwater to Tenino, and the tree, owned by the Port of Olympia, was in the spotlight. The Thurston County commission passed a motion for a $20,000 construction cost, out of the larger $2.2 million price tag of the entire highway project, for realigning the road to create a buffer for the oak tree. Highway 99 was moved nine feet sideways, and a concrete barrier was placed between the traffic lane and the tree to prevent drivers from hitting it.

The Olympia Airport hangar was built in 1936, and in the later 1946 aerial photo the Garry oak can be seen rising up from the other side. Photo courtesy: Olympia Tumwater Foundation

In 1995 the Davis Meeker oak was put on the Tumwater Register of Historic Places. The City of Tumwater has qualifying heritage tree criteria, among them age and being a specimen with combining factors that make a tree unique among local and state species. The Oregon White oak,is the only native oak of Washington state.

In 1999 the Thurston County commissioners placed a marker by the tree on Arbor Day, giving it the Davis Meeker name honoring environmentalist Jack Davis who led others in the 1984 effort to save it and honoring notable pioneer Ezra Meeker.

The Davis Meeker oak has been studied by tree specialists inside and out, from core samples to canopy exams to aerial views to its leaf color and size. The inside of the tree has been analyzed with sonar tomography. Its size and proximity to human activity have continued to put it center stage for comments and concerns from all viewpoints.

Garry oak trunk with a concrete barrier next to it
The Davis Meeker Garry oak name honors Ezra Meeker, though it is not confirmed he was at the site of the tree, and Jack Davis, an environmentalist who took part in a 1984 movement to protect the tree. Photo courtesy: Karen L. Johnson

“I appreciate that the tree brings people together,” Gleason says.

Many cultures protect and honor trees, Thurston County included. For a variety of reasons, trees have marked the spot, made for meeting places and sheltered people from rain, wind and sun. People even make trees a destination spot so they can take their photos next to them in awe of their comparative size. Trees are recognized as living things that have seen and survived.

The savannah is gone, and the trail has been transformed into a roadway that has carried countless passengers, but the Garry oak is a long-appreciated, tangible and visible connection between modern day people and the past land, trail and those who gathered food nearby and, perhaps, beneath it.

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