What Weather, Climate, Fire & Other Information Can Be Gleaned From the Felled Fairground Trees

By digging into the rings on the old-growth White Oaks at the Tippecanoe County Fairground, much information can be gleaned.

Posted: Sep 14, 2018 5:57 PM
Updated: Sep 15, 2018 6:25 PM

So far, of the dozens of old growth trees felled at the Tippecanoe County Fairgrounds, they all date back 1810-1865.  The largest percentage of the trees date back 1840-50.  However, there are many from the 1830s.  All of the trees are White Oaks (Quercus alba).

According to the original land surveys from the National Archives (surveys with notes of the vegetation of the area in the early 1800s), from present-day I-65/26 to Creasy/Sagamore all the way to Tippecanoe Mall, Subaru to Dayton was a large, expansive tallgrass prairie.  The slopes along creeks & the rugged ground sloping into Lafayette toward the Wabash River was wooded.  Shadeland was on the edge of the expansive Wea Plains of tallgrass prairie.  It was named for the shady wooded area that began in that area.  The area at the Purdue Airport was fertile, sandy prairie.  Other than tuliprees, sugar maples, ash, basswood & beeches in deeper ravines & coves like Happy Hollow, the higher slopes around Lafayette & West Lafayette were dominated by oak-hickory timber.  White Oak was the most common tree mentioned.

The trees at the fairgrounds (White Oak) & some scattered, large old growth trees south of Lafayette-Jeff (mainly Bur Oak.....few White & Black Oaks) & the large oak grove south of Central Catholic tended to be in the buffer zone between the large black soil prairies eastward toward present-day Alcoa to Target to Subaru, etc. & the wooded areas that were in place farther west & north toward the inner city.

Of note is the fact that to the southeast of the fairground, the old-growth oaks in those neighborhoods are Burs, not Whites.  Bur has better fire resistance than White.  This makes sense finding Burs farther out into former prairie on the far edge of the buffer zone.

The oldest trees have evidence of some wildfire that would have burned the flatter prairies to the east.  These oldest trees were on the north side of the fairgrounds closer to a wooded ravine area near a creek with the oldest dating back to 1810.

The 1830s-1860s trees lack fire scarring.  However, the rings are very wide during the 1830s-50s growth.  This signals an open area with full sun where the oaks would have maximized their growth in the rich prairie soil.  Another note is that there is not considerable variability in the rings in regards to drought.  This shows that this is a complacent site or it is rich & consistently moist, rather than the trees reacting from highly-fluctuating soil moisture levels.  For example, if the oaks were growing on a dry site, we would notice the rings reacting to dry or wet years very much as it is a sensitive moisture site.  This is not.

So, the fires stop, the oaks encroach on the prairie or the oaks begin to proliferate in the barrens or prairie & growth rapidly.  The rings greatly tighten as the canopy fills.  Cattle grazing likely kept the trees all oak & not more fire-sensitive, shade-sensitive trees from invading the site.  The oldest trees on the edge show the fire scarring as they were there before the fires stopped with the European settlement & fire supression.

On this particular tree, note the fire scars as a young tree in the 1820s/1830.  These are perhaps two LOW intensity fires.  If they were higher intensity, there would be much more callous tissue here & scaring.  It wasn't enough to warp the rings much.  This is briefly heating the inner bar.  The wind may have been strong & it may have been a brush with a low fire.  May have had a west/southwest wind fire & a north wind fire given the pattern of the burned area of the tree.

Fire suppression & gradual filling in of the barrens/prairie buffer zone is shown in the large rings in the settlement period of the 30s, 40s, 50s, then some disturbance with opening canopy again, followed by close canopy with tight rings.  Cattle grazing, then mowing kept the tree in stable oak canopy til its felling in 2018.

I count rings multiple times on tree stumps & cookies & this one actually dates back to 1840, not 1842.  It is 178 years old, not 176.

Regardless, note the common theme with the trees.  Very rapid 1840s, 50s growth as fire suppression & open spaces allowed skyrocketing growth for a White Oak.  The growth then slowed dramatically probably due to canopy crowding.  Cattle grazing, then mowing may have allowed the oaks to continue without more disruption.

There is no firing scaring on this tree.

Here is one from 1837, a sprouting oak as Andrew Jackson's presidency ended in March 1837 & Martin Van Buren's began.

No firing scaring here, just sprouting oak during the period of rapid oak growth in this area 1830s-1850s.

Another sample from a tree that sprouted in the late 1820s:

Another tree that began growing in Andrew Jackson's presidency:

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