LA Cyress stands famous

By William J.Thibodeaux
Special to The Journal

In 1963, Louisiana designated the bald cypress the official state tree. Unlike most conifers, which are evergreens, the bald cypress is deciduous. It loses its needles in the fall giving the tree a bald appearance, hence the name. Cypress trees grow in many parts of Louisiana as well as other parts of the country. It prefers wet, swampy soils along riverbanks, wet depressions, and floodplains, but they are widely adaptable. Areas where cypress grows almost exclusively alone, the Cajuns called them Cyprires--cypress swamps. The majestic cypress is naturally resistant to insects and decay, thus making them valuable and extremely sought after. The ageless beauties are said to span numerous centuries and even millenniums.

I recently read an interesting essay "The History of the Cypress Lumber Industry in Louisiana" written by Rachael Edna Norgress, which was published in the Louisiana Historical Quarterly in 1947. Her wide-ranging work described a vast virgin cypress forest that once stretched from the rich bottomlands of North Louisiana to the Gulf coast. Unfortunately, there exists only sprinkling remnants of the once magnificent forests in scattered groups as reminders of the once extensive woodlands.

Cypress of long ago grew to one hundred-twenty feet in height and from twenty-five to forty feet in circumference above the conical base, which at the surface of the earth is always three or four times as large as the continued diameter of the trunk. In felling the cypress, the "swampers" were obliged to raise themselves upon scaffolds five or six feet from the ground. The wood of the cypress is fine-grained and reddish in color. It possesses great strength and elasticity and is lighter and less resinous than that of pines. The cypress has long resisted the heat and moisture of the Southern climate. Since the time of the early settlers in the United States, cypress has been the preferred wood to all others. According to Norgress's essay, E. C. Townsend, in The Southern Lumberman of 1890, compiled and arranged an interesting study on "Durability of Cypress." The cypress wood was used for a variety of purposes--wine presses, poles, rafters and joists, and especially for funeral grounds. An example of Louisiana's cypress durability is well established by the excavation of a wooden coffin in 1909. This particular coffin had been buried since 1803. The nails holding the wood were not rusted, and the wood itself was in an excellent state of preservation. Another case of durability was revealed in 1913 when workers were surprised to learn that beneath the principal streets of New Orleans were stumps from the cypress forest, which once covered the present site of the city. The stumps dated back to the days of the first settlers, which at the time was over two hundred years ago, yet they were in a state of perfect preservation.

Interestingly, the cypress wood is believed to be the ancient gohperwood, which is what Noah's Ark was made of. Pieces of timber of the same wood removed from St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome in order to install a brass column were said to be perfectly preserved after having been in place for more than a thousand years. Our Louisiana cypress grows primarily in the southern part of the state and in some of the low swamps of the orthern parishes. Cypress is the longest lasting of all woods, and underwater it is practically indestructible.

Unfortunately, it is extremely slow growing, perhaps only one-half inch in diameter per year, which makes reforestation impractical for cypress because it takes approximately 90-years before it is large enough for harvesting.

One of the oldest trees ever cut in Louisiana, and at the same time the oldest living tree in the East, was the famous Edenborn Cypress. According to Prof Herman Schrenk of St. Louis and other scientists, who have examined the tree back in 1923, it was estimated to be over 2,500 years old. And at that time it was said to be the fifth oldest known living thing on earth. Apparently, its only enemy was the ax because for unknown reasons, the tree was chopped down in 1924. The enormous cypress trees were located on a tract of land at Atlanta "Coochie Brake" sometimes referred to as Cypress Brake, which was located in the southern part of Winn Parish not far from Winnfield. The massive cypress yielded 23,000 board feet of lumber.

According to Norgress's interesting essay, the tract was purchased by William Edenborn in 1900, when he was acquiring the right-of-way for the Louisiana Railway and Navigation Company from New Orleans to Shreveport. The Edenborn cypress tract was unique, and peculiar in itself; the land contained densely populated cypress growth in an area of slightly more than one and one-half square miles. The cypress trees were so large, there were but a few sawmills that were capable of handling such massive timber. Without doubt, the timber was the largest and oldest cypress standing anywhere in the United States. The estimated stumpage was somewhere between 40 and 60 million board feet. While cypress usually grows in swamps, the Edenborn specimen stands in a hollow between hills. And what is really strange, few residents of the state, now and back then, knew of these massive trees. Not even most locals from the area knew of the trees. Edenborn requested that three of the largest trees to never be cut. These three were specifically reserved by William Edenborn when he sold the tract in 1912. He purposely wanted to preserve these three gigantic trees as a perpetual record of what the cypress growth of Louisiana once was.

By an act in 1849, Congress granted the state of Louisiana the entire swamp and overflowed lands within the state, which were deemed unfit for cultivation. Unfortunately, this eventually led to the death bell, which was tolled in 1880 for the giant monarchs of the Louisiana forest. According to Norgress's essay, sale and disposition of swampland grants were secured largely by fraud for the advantage of private individuals having political influence with officials of the state.

Unfortunately, the majestic Louisiana cypress trees once referred to as "inexhaustible" had met the beginning of the end.

I was ready for a daytrip to visit the Edenborn tract when I decided to call first. After speaking with the very capable Kala Reed, the Circulation Assistant of the Winnfield public library, I was soon in contact with Tom Kelly, the editor and publisher of the Piney Woods Journal, who informed me that the Edenborn cypress trees are no longer standing. I was also informed that the tract is now privately owned and is used exclusively for hunting. Not only that, according to Kelly, Edenborn's giant cypress tract over the decades has nearly evolved into an urban myth since there are no known photographs of the trees in existence, nor is there anyone alive who has seen the giant trees to substantiate the stories.