The Presidents, the Magnolia Trees, and the Museum

Posted by | May 4, 2011

Please welcome guest author Carol Ostrom, Resources Director at the Museum of Appalachia.


At the Museum of Appalachia, visitors enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds of springtime as it was once known in Old Appalachia—purple martins nesting in gourd houses, the earthy smell of freshly turned gardens, the bleating of young lambs and goats (kids) playing in the fields, and the little ducklings, turkeys, guineas, and chicks chasing to keep up with their mothers. Across the open meadow, the strains of old-time fiddling and singing mingle with the fragrance of spring flowers.

The authentic log buildings speak eloquently of pioneer times. The stories of those who lived in these dwellings are told through the artifacts they left behind.

Dr. Willard Witte, former University of Tennessee horticulture researcher and associate professor, inspects one of the Museum's Jackson magnolias.

Dr. Willard Witte, former University of Tennessee horticulture researcher and associate professor, inspects one of the Museum's Jackson magnolias.

And there is history even in the plants and trees. Two magnolia trees in front of the Hall of Fame in particular have national significance; their stories are intertwined with the lives of President Andrew Jackson, President Ronald Reagan, and Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr.

The remarkable story of the Museum of Appalachia magnolia trees is told in this time line:

1829: Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States of America, planted a magnolia sprout from the Hermitage, his home in Nashville, at the White House. The tree was planted in memory of his wife Rachel, who had died a month earlier. This sprout grew into a tree and was a favorite place for President Harry Truman, Jackie Kennedy, and other White House residents and visitors over the years. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill sat “underneath that old magnolia tree.”

1988: Ronald Reagan, the nation’s 40th president, personally presented a cutting from the White House magnolia to Sen. Howard H. Baker, Jr., his retiring chief of staff. Sen. Baker planted the tree at his Huntsville, Tennessee, home.

1994: A small plane veered into the White House lawn and crashed into the tree, thus averting damage to the White House itself.

1994: Museum of Appalachia Founder John Rice Irwin was lunching at Sen. Baker’s Huntsville residence when he noticed the tall magnolia. After hearing the story of the tree’s history, and seeing the picture of the White House tree on the back of the $20 bill, Irwin requested a cutting and Sen. Baker arranged for two cuttings to be rooted and sent to Irwin.

1995: The two cuttings were presented to Irwin in a formal ceremony with Sen. Baker presiding. The trees were planted in front of the Museum’s Hall of Fame and are now some 35 feet tall. This event was covered by the Associated Press and received nationwide publicity.

1996: A cutting was presented to Sen. Lamar Alexander, who says that, with the tender care of his wife, Honey, the tree is now in excess of 30 feet in height.

1998: Officials at the Hermitage noted the articles on the 1995 Museum event and requested a cutting from the Museum magnolia to replace the original tree, which was destroyed by a tornado. The Hon. Lewis Donelson, descendant of the Jacksons, officiated at the setting of the tree.

2008: Five cuttings were successfully propagated from the Museum magnolia.

2009: John Rice Irwin talked to the Hermitage folks on June 19, and learned that the original magnolia tree is indeed gone. The young sprout provided by the Museum in 1998 was now a tree taller than 35 feet. Officials at the Hermitage were not aware of how it was obtained, and they were elated to learn of its historic and circuitous route.

2011: Several of the 2008 cuttings are now planted beside the Museum’s main parking lot.

Also growing on the Hall of Fame lawn are several Kentucky coffee trees, a species of yellowwood bearing large brown seeds that were used by early settlers as a substitute for coffee. The paw paw tree is also represented on the lawn.

Other native species typical of pioneer homesteads are planted throughout the Museum grounds. They include a pear tree in front of the Mark Twain Family Cabin; a cherry tree behind the Peters Homestead House; Ruth Rice Irwin’s white cedar tree, near the Cantilever Barn; muscadine grapes behind the McClung House and Peters Homestead House; wisteria vines near the General Bunch House; and the ubiquitous dogwood and redbud trees so common in the Southern landscape.

Magnolia sign on the Hall of Fame lawn.

Magnolia sign on the Hall of Fame lawn.

A wildflower garden (near the Big Tater Valley One-Room Schoolhouse) reaches its peak in mid-April with hepaticas, spring beauties, trilliums, trout lilies, and other native woodland flowers. Roses, Rose of Sharon (althea) bushes, lilacs, wisteria, cannas, phlox, black-eyed Susans, and other pioneer shrubs and flowers bloom from late spring through summer.

2 Responses

  • Marc Bentley says:

    What a fascinating story, tying together Appalachia, Nashville, and Washington D.C. That’s quite a legacy for a little tree planted so many years ago.

  • [...] There is a history even in plants and trees in every country. Andrew Jackson, our seventh President planted a magnolia sprout in memory of his beloved wife Rachel. That grew into a tree that became a favorite place at the White House for Harry Truman, Jackie Kennedy and visitors for many years. You can read all about this special magnolia tree on the Appalachian History site. [...]

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