Search for 2,500 year old tree leads to Emden

Editor and Publisher

Fifth oldest living thing on Earth? A tree? In Winn Parish, Louisiana? Sounded like a real story, if I could verify it.

The subject arose as I read a story reprinted from a 1923 article from the no-longer existent New York Herald newspaper, reprinted in the 1985 book of Winn Parish, Louisiana history, issued by the Winn Parish Historical Society.

The story opens with the dramatic lead, “The fifth oldest known living thing on earth, and the third oldest in North America, is a giant cypress tree in what is known as the Edenborn Brake, in Winn Parish, Louisiana, according to Carlton F. Poole of the Louisiana State Conservation Office.”

“The age of the tree has been placed at 2,500 years by Prof. Herman Schrenk of St. Louis, and other scientists who have examined it. According to records, it is exceeded in longevity only by the Santa Maria del Tule cypress, near Oaxaca, Mexico, 5,000 to 6,000 years old; the Dragon Tree at Oratoava Island of Tenerife, 4,500 years old; the Redwood tree, California, 4,000 years old; and the Baobab tree, Senegal, 4,000 years old.”

The story goes on. The owner, a German-born industrialist, long since dead, named William Edenborn, owned the tract containing the elderly cypress trees, located in a brake somewhere in Winn Parish, and had set aside the tract to be donated to the Louisiana Department of Conservation, to be turned into a park for tourists.

So, where is Edenborn Brake? Never heard of it. I called around, and finally reached J.C. Ward, one of the longest-practicing foresters in this part of the Piney Woods. All he could come up with was Coochie Brake, down in the woods south of Atlanta, Louisiana, which we all know about, and which has been the object of several development plans, none of which came to very much. Ward suggested other contacts, none of which panned out.

Since the Louisiana Department of Conservation has long since dealt only with the state’s mineral resources, no one in that office had heard of the supposed set-aside by the late Mr. Edenborn. Department of Forestry, in the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry? This is a story about a tree, so, I asked State Forester Wade Dubea. He said he’d ask around; nothing turned up.

The old story continued to tantalize. “The Edenborn Cypress was budding into life when Jerusalem was taken by Nebuchadnezzar. It was a lusty young sprout when the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae were fought, when Assyria was at the apex of world dominion, and when Rome was a village of mud roads and hovels. The tree was 600 years old when Christ was born in Bethlehem, a veteran when the Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain to leave the savage tribes of those islands to fight out their differences, and was more than 2,000 years old when Columbus sailed into the Atlantic to begin his voyage of discovery.”

“This tree was one of a number of its kind in a tract of timber purchased by William Edenborn some years ago, and when logging began he refused to permit it and three others almost as large to be felled, although the giant contains approximately 23,000 feet of lumber.”

Well, so who was William Edenborn, and what do we know about him?

William Edenborn, (born March 20, 1848, died May 13, 1926) was a businessman, inventor and philanthropist, born in Altena in the Westphalia region of the Ruhr River Valley of the former Prussia, since Germany. He immigrated to the United States in 1866 as a “financially poor youth yet rich in vision and courage” and eventually became a citizen.

There’s more, much more.

When Edenborn reached the United States at the age of 18, he became a wiremaker by trade. He resided briefly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he worked as a mechanic. He relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio, and then St. Louis, Missouri, where in October 1875, he married the former Sarah Drain and joined the Methodist Church. He worked in various jobs connected with steel and wiremaking.

Edenborn is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the inventor of barbed wire, but that designation rests with Joseph Glidden of Illinois. Edenborn, however, patented a machine which simplified the making of barbed wire and cut the unit price from seventeen to three cents per pound. He also received a patent for his particular wire, which is the “humane” version that did not harm cattle. The original wire was sharp-teethed and contributed to Western range wars.

Edenborn’s company in time supplied 75 percent of the barbed wire in the United States. A wire nail machine that he also patented reduced the price of wire nails from eight to two cents per pound. Edenborn’s concern later consolidated with the Southern Wire company, owned by financier John Warne Gates, to form the Braddock Wire Company. In 1888 they organized the Consolidated Steel and Wire Company, a forerunner of U.S. Steel and USX.

Edenborn would serve as a director of U.S. Steel. He sold his share of the company to J.P. Morgan for $50 million and his patent rights for another $40 million. He owned majority stock in more than twenty-five companies.

Edenborn was known for his exceptional frugality, usually spending no more than $200 per year on personal expenses and serving guests mostly home-made sandwiches. He and his wife chose to live in Winn Parish, Louisiana, though they owned more than a million acres of land in Louisiana and could have resided anywhere else of their choosing. He named his farm “Emden” after a city on the Ems River near the North Sea.

Emden was located on the Harrisonburg Road southwest of Atlanta, in Winn Parish, Louisiana. At Emden, he obtained a patent for a device that distilled pine oil for use in making turpentine. He experimented with ways to protect cotton from boll weevils, developed silkworms, and planted peanuts with the encouragement of his friend, the scientist George Washington Carver of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He attempted unsuccessfully to use monkeys as cotton pickers.

Edenborn and State Senator Henry E. Hardtner purchased a sawmill east of Winnfield and named the site Urania for the Greek muse of astronomy. The two, with Hardtner getting more of the credit, launched a successful reforestation program, planting seedlings in areas where the trees had already been harvested.

Edenborn’s friendship with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt led to an invitation for himself and Hardtner to join outgoing Governor Newton C. Blanchard in attending Roosevelt’s White House Conservation Conference in May 1908.

Edenborn had accompanied President Roosevelt on a bear hunting trip in Louisiana, when the president refused to shoot a bear with two cubs; this is one version of the incident leading to the popularization of the term “Teddy bear”.

In 1898, Edenborn had launched construction of the Louisiana Railway and Navigation Company, which extended from Shreveport to New Orleans and linked areas of his adopted state where the lack of transportation had prevented the development of industry. The railroad cost some $20 million. The project pumped $50 million into the state’s economy at a time when the money was fully backed by gold.

In addition to Emden in Winn Parish, the Edenborns maintained a residence in New Orleans, where they spent most of their later years to be near the railroad business office. He was also a chairman of the board of the Kansas City Southern Railroad.

With William Buchanan and Harvey C. Couch, Edenborn also owned the short-line Louisiana and Arkansas Railway.
Edenborn died in a Shreveport hospital on May 13, 1926 after having been felled by a stroke eight days earlier at Emden. At his death he was counted among the wealthiest men in the United States by the Wall Street Journal. His funeral may have been the largest in the history of the large Forest Park Cemetery in Shreveport. Mourners sent twelve truck loads of flowers to his funeral and lined a concourse fifteen blocks long at the cemetery to pay their respects.

Edenborn had befriended the popular African American singer Huddie William Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, who composed “Goodnight, Irene” and “John Henry.” While Ledbetter served time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Edenborn was among the regular visitors. Lead Belly is honored with a statue across from the Caddo Parish Courthouse in Shreveport.

Sarah Edenborn succeeded her husband as the head of the Louisiana Railway and Navigation Company on May 19, 1926, the first woman in such a position in the state. Sarah was buried beside her husband on her death in 1944.