Communities come together to keep historic Bartram Oak healthy
To call the Bartram Oak magnificent would be an understatement. The tree’s trunk is 90 inches wide, and its canopy, when healthy, is about 100 feet across.
Driving along State Road 40 out of Volusia County and across the bridge to Astor, it’s impossible to miss the tree. People riding by on wagons hundreds of years ago likely had a hard time missing it, too.
The Bartram Oak’s health was called into question last year when branches facing the roadway began dying, but county and state arborists say there’s hope for nursing the old tree back to health.
County and state environmental staff are interested in making sure the historic live oak remains healthy, and a joint meeting of county staff, state staff and the landowner convened in the shade of the tree’s canopy March 29 to discuss problems and solutions.
The first problem identified was the dying branches facing the road. With the dead branches mostly localized in one area, some of the environmental experts suspected a utility crew mistakenly sprayed herbicide on the tree.
According to Volusia County Forester Keith Abrahamson, no utility company has claimed responsibility.
The second issue identified was fungal growths on the old oak’s trunk. Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Environmental Supervisor Ray Jarrett had previously spotted big orange mushrooms, colloquially known as Chicken of the Woods, growing on the tree. While the mushrooms are considered a delicious treat for people, Jarrett said, they’re a bad sign for a tree’s health.
FDACS Supervisor Jeffrey Eickwort explained.
“It feeds on the cellulose, the mortar of the tree’s makeup,” he said. “It is the kind of decay that can cause sudden failure.”
It’s not necessarily a death sentence, though. County and state staff recommended trimming back the dead wood and administering special fertilizer to help kick the tree’s growth into overdrive. The arborists and foresters also recommended the landowner contact the state’s Environmental Services to conduct a more thorough investigation.
Thankfully, the old oak is in good hands. The tree is near S.R. 40’s right of way, but the land it sits on is owned by Steve Mackall, an Osteen resident who often gets up to the area on the weekends. The land and the tree have been in his family for generations.
The property was originally purchased by his family, the Dillards, in the 1860s. It remained in the family for years, but was eventually sold. Mackall bought it back in 2020 for a sum of $90,000.
“The main reason for purchasing, other than it being a beautiful piece of property, was to have some control over the protection and care of the tree,” Mackall said. “There is so much history tied to the tree, the town of Astor and the Dillards. I just want to do my little part to preserve that history.”
When he had the opportunity to bring the land back into the family, he was hesitant — it wasn’t cheap, and he didn’t need more property, he said. It was his wife, Lynne Mackall, who insisted they buy the land, saying it would be great to bring the old Dillard family land back to a descendant.
Like the county and state, Steve Mackall has been keeping an eye on the tree for the past year. Along with following up on the county’s recommendations, he’s interested in fencing off the ground near the tree to prevent people from walking or driving.
Mackall also said he would consider the potential of turning the land into a conservation easement, which would allow him to maintain ownership while letting the state work to conserve it.
The story of Barney Dillard, defender of the oak
Most tourists driving west through Volusia in the direction of Ocala stop at the small town’s large landmark, a majestic live oak known as the Dillard Oak.
The huge tree was threatened with destruction in 1926 by the state road department, but a man named Barney Dillard stood under it, shotgun in hand, reciting the poem:
Woodman, spare that tree,
Touch not a single bough!
In youth it sheltered me
And I’ll protect it now.
Dillard, who lived a few hundred feet from the tree, kept watch until a delegation from the Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy made its way to Tallahassee to persuade the governor to save the oak. A marker, designating it as a historic site, was placed in front of the tree in 1978.
Dillard also was the source of several stories used by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in her novel The Yearling. His daughter, Lillian Dillard Gibson, founded the Volusia Museum in 1982 and still runs it.
— From a 1994 article in the Orlando Sentinel
A series of fortunate events helped save oak
Sometimes getting work done requires a number of parties taking an interest. The meeting of the state, county and landowner under the canopy of the Bartram Oak near Astor was more than a year in the making.
For people who drive on S.R. 40 regularly, the health of the old oak was easy to assess — they see it all the time.
• The Beacon was first alerted in 2021 by Pierson Vice Mayor Robert F. Greenlund about potential harm done to the tree. We reached out to Volusia County Forester Keith Abrahamson, who took a look at the tree. He said the county would be keeping an eye on it.
• Another person who noticed the tree wasn’t doing well was Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Environmental Supervisor Ray Jarrett. On a drive to his Gainesville office through West Volusia’s northern tip, he saw the tree’s unhealthy-looking branches, and fungus growing on its trunk.
Jarrett did what many people do when they’re frustrated nowadays — he posted on Facebook.
“The Volusia Bartram Oak is getting screwed over,” Jarrett wrote in a follow-up to his original post last year. “Some NumbNutz treated the lateral limbs with herbicide right after it was pruned this past February.”
• Thankfully, one of the people who saw his original Facebook post was FDACS Supervisor Jeffrey Eickwort. Between Eickwort and Jarrett, both state employees, the state’s interest in the tree’s health was piqued.
• The state and the county kept their eye on the tree for some time, as did landowner Steve Mackall. Mackall said he saw plenty of posts on social media, too, from other folks who were concerned.
• After months of the various parties keeping an eye on the old oak separately, Jarrett planned for everyone to meet at the tree.
That included the landowner, county staff, state staff, foresters, and plant health experts, all concerned about the historic tree’s health.
Want to see it for yourself?
The Bartram Oak is situated along the William Bartram Trail, a small walking trail named after the 18th-century American naturalist William Bartram to commemorate his visit to West Volusia in 1774.
It’s at the intersection of State Road 40 and Alice Drive. From DeLand, head north on U.S. Highway 17 and turn left on S.R. 40. The Alice Drive intersection is about 6.5 miles after you turn. The tree will be on your right just before the bridge to Lake County.
The tree is known by a number of names, including the Volusia Oak — for its proximity to the unincorporated community of Volusia — the Bartram Oak, and the Dillard Oak, for the family who owned the nearby homestead from the 1870s on.
The current owner of the land the tree sits on is Steve Mackall, a direct descendant of Dillard family patriarch, and Mackall’s great-great-grandfather, Barney Dillard.
Family legend has memorialized Barney Dillard for his effort to protect the tree, but his wife, Alice Dillard, left her mark on the area, too.
Alice Drive is named for the Dillard family matriarch.