Beauty in the Fall 

 

Local Group Turns Prayer Tree Into Everyday Items

 

By Matt Gonzales, Daily News Record, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

 

Donna Miller displays her favorite works turned from the Stonewall Jackson Prayer Tree, which fell during a storm in 2011. (Photo by Nikki Fox / DN-R)

 

Following its fall, area woodturners have created various items from the white oak of the Stonewall Jackson Prayer Tree. (Photo by Nikki Fox / DN-R)

 

In June 1862, the American Civil War was approaching its climax when Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson led a 15,000-troop brigade through the Shenandoah Valley in a series of battles that helped shape the conflict, while cementing Jackson’s legendary status. 

During this time, Jackson often gathered his troops beneath a towering then 200-year-old white oak tree, located in an open field near Mount Meridian in northern Augusta County, and lead a prayer session before heading into battles at nearby Cross Keys and Port Republic.

“Stonewall Jackson was a very religious man,” said Nancy Sorrells, president of the Augusta County Historical Society. “The prayers included asking God to watch over [the men], protect them and lead them to victory.”

Given the sweltering heat that comes with summer weather in the Valley, Sorrells added that Jackson and his troops would likely gather under the massive oak and use its shade to their advantage.

Standing 70-feet tall, with a 123-inch diameter, the appropriately named Stonewall Jackson Prayer Tree became a recognizable fixture in the Shenandoah Valley for many decades afterward, until the disease-ridden tree succumbed to a wind storm May 27, 2011, after standing approximately 350 years.

“The tree suffered from oak rot, so, over the years, the weather got the best of it,” said Donna Miller, a 58-year-old Grottoes farmer whose family owns the property on which the tree once stood. “But then, one day, this group contacted me, and asked if we would donate the wood from the prayer tree to them.”

That group was the Woodturners of the Virginias, headquartered in Mount Jackson, which is a 14-year-old woodturning club known for taking blocks of wood and transforming them into a variety of objects, including bowls, pens and necklaces.

Roger Chandler, communications director of WoVA, reached out to Miller after learning of the tree’s demise through a newspaper article that had published in the Daily News-Record.

“I started reading this article about a historic tree falling,” he explained. “Given that I am a wood turner who is also interested in the preservation of history, I thought it would be a shame to allow this tree to become firewood.

“I wanted to give the tree a second life.”

Chandler, along with the president of WoVA, Don Voas, met with Miller that same week to discuss the possibilities that could come of donating the wood to the club. Sold on the idea, Miller agreed to give the club exclusive rights to the tree and, a week later, the process of dismembering the oak began.

Approximately 20,000 pounds of wood were salvaged from the tree during the operation, followed by hours of labor put in by the club in order to use the material.

Chandler explained that the project had its share of “challenging” moments due to the timber’s age and condition, such as battling decay and rot. Ultimately, “about 97 percent” of the wood was recovered and turned.

He added that a few surprises arose during the severing process.

“We killed three or four snakes that were still in the tree,” laughs Chandler. “That was definitely a surprise.”

The club used a band saw and lathe in order to shape and spin the wood, carving out items such as vases, replica baseball bats, bark-edged bowls and even Christmas tree ornaments.

Some of these items were donated to museums, including the Richmond Historical Society, Grand Caverns Gift Shop and Oasis Fine Art & Craft located in downtown Harrisonburg, while others were sold at craft shows and similar venues, with a portion of each sale benefiting the Wounded Warrior Project; the proceeds totaled $2,100.

Miller — who knew little about wood turning — now has a curio cabinet in her home filled with a collection of the items produced with the tree’s wood.

“I was so ecstatic that [WoVA] contacted us in the first place,” admitted Miller.

“Now, the tree has been given a second life.”

 

Reprinted with the permission of the author, Matt Gonzales, of the Daily News Record, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Contact Matt Gonzales at (540) 574-6265 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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