It was like losing a member of my family. I’ve written before in my essay titled Heirloom of my longstanding affinity for a 300 year-old oak tree growing at the entrance to the “House of the Singing Winds” in Brown County, Indiana (the former home of artist T. C. Steele, which is now a State Historic Site). It was also the subject for some of Steele’s iconic paintings dating to the early 1900s. I’ve visited the tree many times since my childhood in the 1950s; I first went to the Site in the company of my beloved maternal grandmother, Christine Lebline Rapp, which is further elaborated upon in my earlier essay.
Sometime during the night in July 2015, Steele’s “Old Oak” broke apart at the trunk and fell to the ground striking a nearby stone archway marking the lane leading back from the Site’s entrance to Steele’s former house. A manager at the Site observed, “We came to work on July 31 and it [the tree] was down; it was fine the night before.”
There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven… –Ecclesiastes 3:1
I learned about this incident a few days later via a news account on the internet; I was stunned. There had been no storms so it’s not known why the tree came down. However, just a few years earlier my wife Mary Ann experienced a similar thing when a large cottonwood tree growing in our yard in Minnesota fell over! She happened to be looking at the tree when it came down; she was astonished. That too happened on a calm day with no apparent reason for the tree to fall.
Recalling a familiar biblical passage, I reasoned that our tree had fallen simply because it was its “appointed” time–enough said. Similarly, I accepted the loss of T. C. Steele’s Old Oak with a sense of resignation. Yet I still wondered what it would be like for me to visit the Steele Historic Site again without that ancient oak growing beside its entrance.
My first opportunity to return to Brown County came about a year later. As I approached the place in August 2016 where Steele’s tree had once stood I saw that all the downfall debris was removed; only the tree’s stump remained. I pulled my car to the side of the road, got out and gave homage to the tree by taking a few photographs of its stump. I felt a tinge of sadness at the loss, but I also took solace in knowing that the tree had lived a very long time and had enriched the lives of many. I remember thinking to myself: “What else can one ask—even of a tree?”
Advance ahead one year. It’s September 2017 and I was preparing to depart for yet another sojourn into my southern Indiana Homeland. Before leaving Minnesota I received a message from The Friends of T. C. Steele Historic Site, an organization of which I am a member. It read:
They are here! Three absolutely beautiful oak bowls made from Steele’s favorite tree, a 300 year-old oak that once stood by [the entrance to] the site…Wood from this old oak has now been turned into bowls. Such bowls always sell fast, and because they take so long to dry they aren’t available very often.
The message included photos of three bowls, and as I admired them I thought: “One of those would sure make a nice remembrance of that old oak tree!” But then I reasoned: “I’m sure they’ll all be sold before I can get to the Steele Site next week.” And then I didn’t think any more about the Old Oak or its bowls until…
I had been on a day trip in southern Indiana and I was driving to Brown County State Park where I planned to stay the night. My route took me near the T. C. Steele Site, and since it was a fine day for weather I decided to make a stop there. I wanted to view the Steele paintings on display in the studio, plus I figured the grounds might make a good backdrop for a bit of journal writing. I turned off Indiana highway 46 and began the familiar two-mile drive back to the Site. As I approached the front entrance, I noticed that the gate was closed and the stone arches were still under repair from the damage caused by the fallen Old Oak. The stump of the tree was still beside the road.
I entered the Site through the back entrance and pulled into the visitors’ parking area. I was surprised to see that there were no other cars there; I was the only visitor. “Where are the people today?” I asked myself. I parked my car and walked a short distance to the administrative office where visitors are welcomed and register for tours of the house and studio. One of the Site’s attendants was on duty and after greeting him I asked if I could see the Steele paintings on display in the studio. I explained that afterwards I wanted to find a place on the grounds to write about my day’s activities in my journal. The attendant agreed to my plan and we walked to the studio together. He unlocked the door and escorted me into the gallery where the Steele paintings were hanging.
Since I have been to the T. C. Steele Site many times, I’ve seen many of Steele’s paintings in the state’s collection displayed at the studio over the years. I spent perhaps twenty minutes viewing the paintings this time and then I told the attendant I was ready to leave. He and I walked together back to the administrative office together.
Along the way I happened to mention to him my interest in the Old Oak that used to grow by the Site’s entrance. I also told him I’d seen a note about some bowls being made from the wood of Steele’s tree after it fell. I continued: “I suppose those are long-gone by now?” The attendant stopped walking and looked at me. “Well actually they’re not,” he said. “We’ve had computer problems this past week and haven’t been able to accept credit cards at our gift shop. So the bowls haven’t sold yet; they’re still here.” I smiled and said, “Then I would like to see them!”
The attendant led me into a small room that serves as the Site’s gift shop. He showed me some shelves on which the bowls were displayed. All three were impressive to me, but one of them especially caught my eye. After a brief deliberation I decided to buy it. I’m not sure I could have explained at the time why I had such an affinity for this bowl. It had partly to do with the its distinctive shape and oak grain patterns, yet I knew it was about more than that.
Grace Green and Lee Simmons were married in June 1916. They were both from farm families and grew up in Martin County, Indiana within just a few miles of each other. A year and a half after they married, their son Robert (who became my father) was born. Four years later, son Max came along. By that time the couple was living in the small town of Seymour, Indiana, where Lee worked as a fireman on the B&O Railroad. He regularly stoked locomotive engines pulling “fast mail” trains that ran across southern Indiana between Seymour and Washington. In 1924, Lee was informed that he would soon be promoted from fireman to engineer–then disaster struck.
It was about 3:00 AM on Thursday August 21, 1924. Lee was busy shoveling coal into the boiler of his eastbound locomotive engine as it pulled out of the station in Mitchell, Indiana. Unknown to him or the train’s engineer, a switch had mistakenly been set in the wrong position, which put their locomotive onto a sidetrack. It was dark and late, and perhaps they were in a rush to make up time, which might help explain why the engineer didn’t realize the error until it was too late. The sidetrack came to an end about a mile east of town and when the locomotive reached that point it was still gaining speed. It hit the D-rail device at the end of the track and was thrown down an embankment. The engineer was killed instantly; Lee was mortally injured and died twelve hours later. Son Robert was six years old when his father died; Max was two.
My Grandfather Lee is the one ancestor whom I most wish I could have known. As a young boy I imagined him working on the large steam locomotives I observed working in the rail yard near my childhood home. He was larger than life in my young mind. He was also a mystery to me because people seldom spoke about him. I later learned that after Lee was killed in the accident, my Grandmother Grace entered a period of depression so severe that she required hospitalization. Her sons went to live with her relatives in Martin County until she was well enough to return home. Almost everything in their house that reminded Grace or the boys of Lee was removed. By the time I came along in the 1940s and ’50s, I only recall seeing one small picture of Lee; it was kept on my grandmother’s bedroom dresser. In the photo Lee is standing in his railroad work clothes along with his two sons; it must have been taken just a short time before his fatal accident.
Since acquiring my oak bowl from the T. C. Steele Site in Brown County, it has taken on further meaning for me in association with my Grandfather Lee. I think it’s because the rich oak wood grain of the bowl reminds me of another heirloom that is one of the few objects I know of that he actually touched. That’s an antique oak chifferobe acquired from my Grandmother Grace’s household goods after her house was sold in her later years. “Chifferobe” is a southern term commonly used during the early 1900s to describe a particular kind of furniture especially suited to storing clothes. A typical chifferobe had one long compartment for hanging clothes alongside a smaller one for storing hats. It usually had several drawers. My chifferobe also has two beveled-edge mirrors, one on each of the compartment doors.
Lee and Grace’s chifferobe may have been one of the first objects of furniture acquired by them after they married. Such pieces were popular for people who lived in small houses or apartments with few closets or other storage spaces. That might have described the kinds of places where Grace and Lee lived during their few years together. In my mind I can imagine Lee and Grace sitting together soon after they married and looking through a Sears Roebuck Catalog while trying to decide what kind of furniture to get for their home. That they might choose a Sears Roebuck chifferobe (first introduced by the company in 1908) is not surprising to me. They were practical folks after all.
I also imagine Lee assembling the chifferobe himself from the materials he received from the company. He might have especially appreciated the beauty of its oak wood–just as I do. And perhaps he stopped on occasion just to admire the piece–just as I do.
I think my Grandfather Lee might have also shared my affinity for my T. C. Steele Old Oak bowl. Of course he would have—it shares that same distinctive oak grain pattern as his chifferobe has. The bowl is crafted from the heartwood of Steele’s Old Oak, and when I look at his 1917 painting of that tree, I wonder where the wood in my bowl might have originated.
My T. C. Steele Old Oak bowl has the same significance for me now as any other family heirloom–even though it was made just a year ago and acquired by me recently. I’m the only person in my family who has owned it—so far. According to Webster’s dictionary, an heirloom is any object with special value and meaning derived from its connection to family members of previous generations. In its relatively short time with me, my bowl has become a link to both my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather–and in that sense it’s unique.
Then add to that the fact of the bowl’s antiquity. By this I mean that its wood is as old as any other heirloom I own! When I run my fingers along the rim of the bowl, I feel ridges of grain that mark some of the growth rings of the tree, which signify its many years of life. I imagine those rings possibly being laid down even earlier than when my family first came to Indiana during the 1800s.
My Old Oak bowl is important to me in another way too—its transcendence. Heirlooms have the capacity to take one beyond her or his human limitations. They may serve to bring one closer to people whom one can no longer be with in person–as my bowl does for me in relation to my Grandmother Christine. Or, as in the case of my Grandfather Lee, it may provide a link to someone whom I never even knew before.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. —Margaret Wolfe Hungerford (1878)
Steele’s Old Oak bowl, as with my other family heirlooms, will eventually pass into the hands of others. When it does, it will surely take on new meanings for whomever has it then. In fact, the significance this bowl has for me in relation to my Grandmother Christine and Grandfather Lee will likely be lost over time and replaced by new associations for those who subsequently own it.
Yet my bowl’s timeless beauty will surely endure. It is in the eye of the beholder after all.
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2017. All rights reserved.
I acknowledge support received from Brittany Lunder during the writing of this essay. She was the barista on duty at Caffe Fiore coffee house in West Seattle during my many late-afternoon writing sessions when I went there to find inspiration for this piece. Perhaps without realizing it, Brittany’s sincere interest in my stories—and her oak tree earrings—kept me hopeful that this essay might eventually see the light of day. Thanks, Brittany, for being there and being you.