It stood as a sentry for more than a century over Target Range School, five generations of children playing in its enormous shadow.

On Monday, it came down cut by cut - tens of thousands of pounds of old wood, most of it brown and brittle and weakened by the constant pace of time.

"I hate to see it come down, but I know it's pretty rotten," said Betty Jo Johnson, the former owner of Dale's Dairy, the neighborhood store that sits just two blocks away.

As chainsaws lopped off twigs, then little branches, then bigger branches, Johnson, who had pulled up in a golf cart to watch the scene at the corner of South Avenue West and Clements Road, raised her voice when talking about how her children played under the tree decades ago.

"My kids all went to the little school," she said.

So have thousands of others since the end of the 19th century, when the cottonwood, local historians discovered, was planted at the foot of the now-historic Little White Schoolhouse.

Folks in Target Range knew it was old, but last month a windstorm spilled the secret the 80-foot-tall tree had been keeping, sending a 50-foot branch crashing down onto school grounds and exposing its browned, rotting innards.

"It's still got some green leaves on it, so people think it's still healthy," said Malcolm Miller, superintendent of Treasure State Tree Service, which was contracted to cut down the tree and remove it. "But that's not the case at all."

For more than a year, a neighborhood historic group lobbied the Target Range school board and administrators to trim the tree but not cut it down, imagining a bus stop hollowed out from its massive trunk, or maybe new school benches constructed from its carved-up innards.

***

Those efforts all happened before Superintendent Gary Blaz began his new job at Target Range on June 1.

When the big branch fell last month, Blaz knew he had to act, and take care of the problem before fall semester began. One other enormous tentacle was poised precariously over the historic schoolhouse; the others were a stiff wind away from a possible tragedy.

"You have to err on the side of safety," said Blaz, willing to listen to criticism of his decision. "I really didn't have time to wait. I had to do something because school is starting here soon."

Blaz was aware of the tree's historic value to the neighborhood, so he asked tree experts if any of it could be saved. They told him the wood was too old, too brown, too rotten.

"They said there's basically nothing left of it inside," he said.

So Blaz pulled the plug, but he wanted to honor its long life.

Most of the salvageable wood is in the smaller branches, so Blaz had Treasure State Tree Service chip them. Come fall, they will have a new life not above the children, but below their feet on the playground.

But he's not finished. Blaz is intent on starting a new arboreal history here, and will ask staff and students for their ideas on planting some new trees in front of their school.

"Maybe," he said, "they can take it on as a class project."

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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