So many years had passed since I first stood beside the gigantic
cottonwood tree looking up at the small white house on the hill above
the Lloyd Livingston country store near Freeman that I was reluctant to
But I remembered as though it were yesterday how I was consumed
with thinking what it would be like to live up there. A winding gravel
lane across an old wooden bridge over a glistening crooked stream
slicing through green fields, trees . . . I recalled that even in a
chilling March rain the mystique that surrounded it was provocative as
a picture postcard.
The years obviously had wrought their changes. The re-routing of
State Road 43, the closing of the store, Mr. Livingston’s demise. The
huge cottonwood tree that indiscriminately had spread wide its protective arms
to flocks of birds, and just as casually cast its
cooling shade over generations of humans, was gone. New houses had
sprouted up in each direction.
But as I slowly drove up the winding gravel lane, curious to know
the identity of the new owner, I was strangely grateful. As though they
might have belonged to me, I was pleased to note that the hill, the
bridge, the stream Little Raccoon Creek the little white house, all
seemed indelibly unchanged. And I soon learned with an additional surge
of gratitude that ownership of the place, since my first visit, hadn’t
really changed that much.
“It belongs to God,” smiled the new occupant of the property, a man
named Richard Close, as we stood in the warm sunshine on the hilltop.
“But,” he added, “God doesn’t care if I live here, as long as I pay
the taxes when they come due.”
He could have noted that living up there was just about as near to
the Owner as a man in that bucolic part of Owen County, Indiana, might
get, too, but it probably was evident we were mutually agreed in that
He did say, oddly enough, however, that, “The reason I’m so happy
to live on a place like this is because it takes a lot less to satisfy
me. I just love this place.”
Eighty rolling acres, twenty-six cows and calves, a tractor,
retirement after thirty-five years in a television factory, a new roof
on the house, and a lovely wife inside to do the cooking, struck me as
being satisfaction enough for anybody. Who couldn’t have loved it?
While we lounged up there, Close confided to me how he had acquired the
property from Mr. Livingston. Then I began recalling the day so long
ago that I had visited with Mr. Livingston in his little store and how
I had been impressed with the big cottonwood tree that stood near it.
I remembered that the bole of the old cottonwood tree was so large
it would have taken several men to join hands around it. Protruding
from its thick, gray bark were a profusion of rusty nails of various
sizes. In my mind’s eye I thought I could see the tree as it was that
day, a towering splendor of glistening March raindrops.
I had heard Mr. Livingston say that in its lifetime the large
cottonwood tree had also shaded a smithy that stood there. According to
him the nails in its trunk were used as hooks in connection with the
work of the smiths who worked there. He recalled that a store customer
of his once had told him that it was an unblemished tree, that in its
long life no desperado had ever been hanged from it. Another customer
had informed him that the enormous tree had grown around a horseshoe
that, for many years been hanging from a nail in its side, and that
it had become completely imbedded in its trunk.
“I expect if a feller went to cut that old tree down,” Mr.
Livingston said that day, “he’d find a lot of iron in it.”
Although the old cottonwood tree was no longer there on my most recent visit, no one, in Mr. Livingston’s words, ever went to cut it down to learn the amount of iron
in it. But it was precisely because it had disappeared that I
determined to give the old cottonwood tree a moment of new life. Thus
it was that I had begun treading this moss-covered walkway into its
past. In my quest these many years later I was to hear a man named
Lester Hendricks coincidentally echo the words of Mr. Livingston.
“As a boy I lived in the neighborhood of that tree,” he informed me.
“Someone kept a ladder leaning against it and I used to climb up and sit
on a limb to wait for my father to come home from work. The limbs on
that tree were themselves as big around as trees.”
Hands slightly cupped, Lester held them widely apart to indicate
the size of the growths as he remembered them.
“The men around there would put a target up on that tree and shoot
at it,” he continued. “I was too young to own a gun but I wanted to
shoot, and they would let me take a shot. I was thrilled to be shooting
a gun. I’ll bet there was a ton of lead bullets in that old tree.”
Lester’s father, for whom he waited while sitting on a limb in the
old cottonwood tree, was Archie Hendricks, son of the man credited with
having planted the tree in the early 1880’s.
I had met Archie and his wife, May Noel Hendricks, at their home on
R. 3, Spencer shortly after I had spoken with Mr. Livingston. It was at
that time that I was able to obtain the following information.
The huge cottonwood tree had come to life in a strange way by the
hand of Reuben Franklin Hendricks, Archie’s father and Lester’s
grandfather. Reuben had been a blacksmith for some thirty-five years in
Greene and Owen counties and operated the smithy at Freeman in the
latter years of the 19th Century.
Archie remembered that the presence of a smaller cottonwood tree
near the smithy had made it convenient for Reuben to use a cottonwood
switch from it as a horsewhip. After thus employing such a switch one
day, Reuben is said to have jammed it into the ground until he would have
further need of it. That time either was slow in coming or Reuben had
a greener thumb than he or anyone else suspected, for the great tree was
said to have grown from that switch.
Archie’s wife, May, however, seemed to remember that Reuben’s wife,
Mary Elizabeth, always said her husband had deliberately set out the
tree. However it came to grow there, it grew quickly and quite large,
and in the spring cottony green catkins drooped in beautiful profusion
from its multitude of lofty branches. During the summer months its
shiny green leaves provided an incredibly large circle of blessed shade
for any and all who sought comfort from the rays of a blistering sun.
Continued scratching at the patina of time past eventually brought
me to the home of Margaret McConnell, in Bloomington. The daughter of
Mr. Livingston, she, later in life, and with her first husband, Russell
Freeman, operated the little store.
“A lot of cotton fell from that tree,” she remembered. “Big
fluffy things floated down on the breeze. And we raked a lot of leaves
that would fall from it.”
She recalled that tending the country store was a lonely, boring
time and that to while away the hours she took her sewing machine there
and made dresses for her daughters.
“I also had time to read all the western novels I could lay my hands
on,” she said. “And the store was a drop-off for the library bookmobile.”
She remembered that Russell had suspended a swing from a branch of
the old cottonwood tree and how much their daughters, Treva (Mrs. Harold
Aynes), and Helen Barnett, had enjoyed it. She also remembered the
blacksmith shop, constructed of what might have been native lumber, sat
under the big cottonwood tree and that it had a dirt floor and a dark
“When I was a girl I used to wait for the school bus there,” she
Mrs. McConnell also remembered that she, her father and mother, and
her sisters Vivian and Alice Jean, were baptized in that part of Little
Raccoon Creek that wound past the big cottonwood tree.
Recollections of having met the school bus there were also
expressed by Ray Unger who, when we met, lived with his wife, Rosa, on
R. 3 Spencer, between Whitehall and Freeman.
“I didn’t get far in life,” he joked, making me welcome and
comfortable in his home. “I was born just an eighth of a mile up the
road from here.
But,” he continued in a more serious vein, “as a boy I played under
that old cottonwood tree. And I waited for the school bus there. On
cold mornings Uncle Ben Ranard would take a hatchet and chop some bark
off that big tree to kindle a fire in the smithy stove to keep us kids
warm until the bus came.”
Uncle Ben Ranard was a smith who arrived under the cottonwood
tree some time after Reuben Hendricks. Reuben and his wife Mary
Elizabeth have been buried these long years — he since 1923 and she
since 1925 — in Gross Cemetery situated east of where the large
cottonwood tree once grew and west of Whitehall. Uncle Ben was “uncle”
to everyone, addressed as such out of respect for his age.
“He was an old man and we younger people were not allowed to call
him or other people of his generation by their first names,” Mr. Unger
remembered the courtesies extended to the elderly of those days. “So we
called him Uncle Ben. His wife’s name was Emma, and we called her Aunt
Mr. Unger also recalled that although Emma was a maiden lady when
she married Uncle Ben and they had children together, he was a widower
and already had children by his first wife.
“It was a big family,” Mr. Unger said. “Uncle Ben lived into his
nineties. He always treated us kids well. He was a fine old man. He
had a son named Dempsey who helped him in the blacksmith shop.”
Archie’s son, Lester, remembered that Uncle Ben and Dempsey had
entertained a wide range of company under the old cottonwood tree.
“Uncle Ben was an old man by then, and so was Dempsey,” he recalled.
“We younger people always thought they were brothers. At one time or
another everybody in Owen County must have come to see that big tree and
there was always someone visiting under that thing. They sat in old
hickory chairs, like my father used to make, leaning against that tree.
They’d be sitting there talking and chewing tobacco and spitting. And
there was always a bucket of water there under that tree, too, with a
dipper in it. Every so often one of them would get up and go get
himself a drink, each of them drinking out of that same dipper.
“Everybody was poor in those days,” Lester recalled. “Everybody
hunted for meat, and they gathered under that tree to talk about their
coon dogs a lot. Everybody had a coon dog. At least they called them
coon dogs. But some wouldn’t tree a ground hog.
“Like I said, everybody was poor,” he went on, “and I remember Uncle
Ben and Dempsey had a big animal bone, a really big one, they’d gotten
somewhere. And I’d watch as they whittled their false teeth out of it.
I saw them, one turning the crank on the little grinder and the other
grinding. They’d try the teeth for size and then grind some more.”
During his years under the cottonwood tree, Reuben reset horseshoes
at ten cents each. At those prices he was able to save enough so that
when his and Mary Elizabeth’s children were born he had the funds to pay
the doctors who delivered each of them ten dollars. One of those
physicians was J. J. Livingston, the grandfather of Mr. Livingston.
Margaret McConnell recalled having been told that Doctor Livingston
had also delivered his grandson, her father. When he saw the newborn
child he is said to have made a bodeful announcement.
“He told my grandmother, ‘He won’t live long.’ But Dad lived to be
ninety,” she said.
Along the way of those ninety years Mr. Livingston, among other
things, met and married Frances Poole and they had seven children. He
also became an ordained elder in the Salem Separate Baptist Church.
When Reuben Hendricks plied his trade under the cottonwood tree he
fabricated various kinds of tools that were used by farmers in the
countryside. At one accounting his customers collectively owed him more
than one thousand dollars, a veritable fortune for that period. Another
interesting note was that Reuben made a horseshoe nail which was used
expressly in winter. It had a large grooved head and apparently gave a
horse an approximation of the same firm grip on snow that snow tires
give automobiles in modern winters.
When I spoke with Reuben’s son Archie, he claimed to have the
hammer his father used as a blacksmith for so many years. Archie was
next to the youngest of Reuben and Mary Elizabeth’s eleven children.
Another was a daughter named Louella. Archie recounted an unusual story
about her – one that is as mysterious today as it was then.
At about twenty years of age Louella made the acquaintance of a
traveling man and they spent a number of Sunday afternoons buggy-riding
the countryside. One Sunday they failed to return, and Louella was
never seen or heard from again.
In fear for their daughter’s safety, Reuben and Mary Elizabeth
early on hired a detective firm to search for her. In time, an address
for her apparently was found. The worried parents wrote many letters
but never received a reply. After some years, a locked trunk arrived at
their home. They pried it open and found, among other personal items
that belonged to their daughter, all the letters they had ever written
to Louella. All had been opened and presumably read by someone.
That was all, except that there was a strange and somewhat misty
unfounded report that Louella had died in New York and that her male
consort allegedly had a prison record. But, no one ever really knew
what happened to Louella, and if she did die New York no one was to ever
learn where she was buried.
Past seventy years of age when we met that rainy March morning so
long ago, Mr. Livingston, at the urging of his family, had put the store
up for sale. As an ordained minister he planned to give his full time to
“I’m the oldest ordained minister in the Central Indiana Association
of Separate Baptists,” he told me. Then with a smile he added, “That’s
no honor. It just means my time is running out.”
He had pastored churches in Owen, Shelby, Morgan and Johnson
counties as a kind of latter day circuit rider. Preaching was still a
big part of his life and he was called on to officiate at weddings and
“I never turn down a request for service, if I can make it,” he
said. “And I never charge for my service.”
During a snowfall one winter he was scheduled to preach a funeral
in Johnson County at 10.30 a.m. and another in Freedom at 2 o’clock that
“It was close, with the snow on and all,” he said. “But I made it.”
Another time, after preaching a funeral at the Lick Springs
Separate Baptist Church in Johnson County, an old man approached him and
congratulated him on his performance.
“Will you preach my funeral?” the old man asked.
Mr. Livingston agreed.
Fifteen years later, while he was employed at RCA in Bloomington to
supplement the money he earned as a minister, a stranger came to the
plant to see Mr. Livingston. The man’s mission soon became clear. The
time had come to preach that old man’s funeral and the Separate Baptist
patriarch, true to his promise, traveled to Hope, Indiana to fulfill the
old man’s wish.
Somewhat stooped under the weight of his years, Mr. Livingston, at
the time of our visit in his little store looked like the country grocer
that he was. He wore a gray-black button-down-the-front sweater over a
tan shirt open at the neck, and brown trousers. Bi-focals framed his
solid blue eyes and his high forehead pitched upward to a fairly full
crop of dusky gray hair. He smiled often and his kindred spirit was a
warming respite from the chilling rain falling outside.
Each morning during his years there, the old grocer descended the
winding gravel lane and passed over Little Raccoon Creek on his way to
tend his little store under the great cottonwood tree. In the evening
he’d retrace that route on his way home to supper and rest in his
Although the cottonwood tree was “innocent,” of any hangings from
its limbs, as one of Mr. Livingston’s store customers had said, the
great tree is alleged to have stood as silent witness to a fatal
encounter. Within sight of it one day two men struggled in mortal
combat, one overcoming the other in what later was decided justifiable
Cottonwood trees are by nature shortlived and this majestic
cottonwood was not to be an exception to that rule. Slowly, from the
inside outward, it began its slow cessation of life. There came a time
during this period when the property on which it stood was purchased by
a man named Raymond Jacobs. He in turn sold it to Haskle Grogan, the
father of Terry Grogan who with his wife, Julia, owned the land at this
“I bought this place in 1988,” Terry advised me during a visit at
Except for the massive trunk, most of the cottonwood tree had been
removed by Terry”s father.
“Limbs breaking off and falling made it dangerous, and it had been
topped, but finally a very strong wind blew it over on the garage,” Terry
said. “We pulled it off and cut it up. Seven big logs came from its
limbs. And the trunk, which was rotted, measured thirty feet around.”
What was left of the old cottonwood was then burned.
“It burned for days,” Terry said.
Terry’s measurement of thirty feet was made just before the trunk of the old cottonwood was destroyed. When the photo of the standing tree was loaned to me by Jerry R. Hendricks, youngest son of Archie and May, and brother to Lester, an attached note gave “sixty-three inches at base” as the measurement. Presumably this was the diameter.
That I might better envision a circumference of thirty feet, I formed a circle that size, as near perfect as I could, using a fifty-foot tape measure. Then opening a six-foot folding rule to as near to sixty-three inches as possible, I placed it inside and across the center of the circled tape measure. This gave me a visual approximation of both the thirty-foot circumference and the sixty-three inch diameter measurements.
While either may have fit the legendary cottonwood tree, my memory leaned heavily toward the larger of the two. The tree I viewed that rainy March day so long ago was gigantic in girth.
The Cottonwood Tree
So many years had passed since I first stood beside the gigantic