Long-living Naperville oak to find new life in art after decay

Among the color-changing oaks and maples, sycamores, elms and ashes along Hobson Road in Naperville and Woodridge, the Hobson Oak stands apart.

A few feet from the north side of the road, on a swath of unincorporated DuPage County property, the 250-year-old tree stands firm.

Troy Cooper, left, Jim Healy and Mary Lou Wehrli are among business people, conservationists and DuPage County leaders who are working to preserve the wood from the 250-year-old Hobson Oak east of Greene Road in an unincorporated area near Naperville and Woodridge. The tree is decaying and must come down this month for safety reasons, but its wood will be turned into furniture and crafts to be sold at charity auctions.

The stately bur oak, a marker of place amid the prairie for generations in Naperville, has grown into a metaphor for tenacity and time, say conservationists who are finding ways to give the well-loved tree a second life.

“Everyone seems to know it,” said Troy Cooper, a Naperville Parks Foundation board member who is coordinating efforts to give the tree an honorable end. “Everyone seems to have a story with it.”

But its time has come.

Around this time last year, the county got a complaint about one of the Hobson Oak’s limbs. Stretching out north from the trunk, the long, horizontal branch had dipped toward the ground — but not broken — making it difficult to walk or ride on the bike path.

“It’s gotta come down,” said Jim Healy, a DuPage County Board member for District 5.

And not just the branch, but the whole tree. All 20-odd feet of trunk circumference. All the hollow gaps at the bottom where critters can hide. Even the softball-sized hole framed by bark growing in all directions, a gap that gives a view of the canopy of leaves and the sky above.

Like it or not county arborists twice have determined the trunk is decaying, the limbs are falling closer to the ground and leaves on the farthest reaches of the tree’s craggy branches are dying.

But the group of conservationists, business people and artists led by Cooper, the Naperville Parks Foundation and the county are making sure the Hobson Oak doesn’t have a date with the woodchipper when it’s cut down sometime before Thanksgiving. Instead, Cooper’s employer, John Greene Realtor, is making sure the tree’s wood will be milled and kiln-dried, separated into various pieces for furniture makers and artists to preserve.

“The oak is unique because of the way it’s grown over the years,” said Paul Ward, who co-owns Wehrli Furniture with business partner Dan Jones after buying it in 2014 from previous owner Tom Wehrli. “It doesn’t have a true, straight trunk that you can get dimensional lumber from.”

So the furniture and artworks from the Hobson Oak won’t be “cookie-cutter,” he says — they’ll be special.

Tables, coasters, ornaments, bowls and other creations to be made by the folks at Wehrli Furniture Company and artists like Naperville native Marianne Lisson-Kuhn will be sold at future charity auctions and fundraisers, such as A Chair Affair, which benefits Glen Ellyn-based Bridge Communities. Half of the proceeds will benefit the organization selling the item, and half will go back to the Naperville Parks Foundation for its role in saving the wood from the tree.

The fact the Hobson Oak won’t be turned to wood chips is a fitting final chapter in the tree’s history, said Mary Lou Wehrli, secretary for the Naperville Parks Foundation and a DuPage County Forest Preserve commissioner.

Even its acorns could be the source of new life, as the Morton Arboretum will tend to them and try to grow saplings.

Written by: Marie Wilson, Daily Herald

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