Julie Jones and Kevin Taylor come from generations of farmers. They consider themselves, Taylor says, “stewards of the land.” So it seemed a bit of kismet when two towering bur oaks on Macon Rd. in Saline beckoned them to their dream home. The oaks guarded the entrance to a three-plus-acre paradise with a log home, a small pond, and the Saline River running through its back boundary. The couple bought the property and moved into their three-story, four-bedroom home with their infant son, John Michael, in 2000. They planted more than 100 trees to create a privacy barrier from the road.
But the beloved 200-to-250-year-old towering twin oaks that had brought them to the property were not doing well. They called in tree experts. “Everything we did became a background for the oaks,” recalls Jones. “We spent thousands on them. They [the experts] did deep root fertilization and trimmed dead branches.”
Still, the family delighted in their idyllic spot–until the dramatic events of July 20, 2011. Steve and Pamela Bebber, the family’s next-door neighbors, vividly remember that evening. “It had been burning hot for two weeks. The grass was real dry,” says Steve. “My wife heard a crackling sound and looked out the window to see the house in flames. Kevin had just been home for ten minutes. He’d heard the crackling too, looked out the window, saw the flames, and rushed out of the house with only his phone and keys.”
When Jones and their son arrived home, there were seventeen fire trucks and more than fifty neighbors at the scene. Jones’s voice still quavers when asked about that day, and they continue to mourn the loss of their white cat, Nekko.
But in the aftermath, Jones says, “We felt so much love. People just flocked to help us.” Their neighbors, people from Emerson School, the Boy Scouts, and volunteers from Saline Destination ImagiNation fed and cared for them. Jean Ward, from Destination ImagiNation, set up schedules for food delivery and support. “We couldn’t have lived through the experience without her,” Jones and Taylor say fervently. They rented the lower level of their other next-door neighbors, the Alexanders, for two weeks. After that, they rented a series of homes over the next few years.
“Until it happens to you, you never really understand how traumatic a fire can be,” Jones says. “Trying to wrestle with insurance companies while trying figure out where we would live while rebuilding. It was just horrible.”
She says of the experience, “We’re better people for it–stronger, more resilient. But, you know, never again.”
Just as the family struggled into 2012, so did the bur oaks on their now-vacant property. One was dying, but Taylor says “cutting it down wasn’t the right thing to do.” They had its crown removed but left the main trunk standing.
Years earlier, visiting Cabela’s in Dundee, Jones had been awestruck by the carving being done in the store as part of its impressive outdoorsy displays. She picked up woodcarver Jacob Smith’s business card and tucked it away. She felt fortunate to find it when she and Taylor decided to have their dying oak carved into something that “would leave a legacy.”
Smith started carving wood with chainsaws when he was seventeen but worked as a finish carpenter until 2008, when a nail shot through and damaged his hand just as the recession shut down the construction industry. He started Logjam Carving Chainsaw Creations in his Fremont, Ohio, garage. Ninety percent of his work is now with trees on the properties of his customers.
He spent hours on a summer day with Jones and Taylor on their vacant property to discuss options. “We’d thought of having him create a phoenix–you know, rising out of the ashes–but decided to go in a different direction,” says Jones.
Smith ultimately drew a sketch that combined some of the animals that lived on the property along with an eagle, an eaglet, and a bear. They made plans for Smith to begin what he calls his “most massive project” on October 28, 2012.
“We invited everyone to watch–families, friends, and neighbors. Sometimes strangers would pull into the subdivision [across the street] and watch,” shares Jones.
For the project, Smith rented a bucket truck–“like one for trimming trees”–and brought his gasoline-powered chainsaw and a generator to run electricity for his sander and air compressor. He painstakingly carved two raccoons popping their heads out from stumps; owls peering out from the tree’s body; a friendly bear pulling aside bark to reveal his face, arm, and torso; and a bald eagle topping the tree, with an eaglet below in a nest Smith constructed of cedar branches.
It took him six ten-hour days to complete the project. It would have been more if not for a local couple. “My generator went out, and with no electricity I couldn’t finish,” says Smith. “A man and his wife stopped to talk to me about the tree. For some reason, I asked if he had a generator. He said he did and brought it back. I tried to pay him, but he insisted his help was free of charge.”
In 2012, Taylor and Jones bought the home they’d been renting. Exhausted from moving and dealing with insurance issues and budget constraints, they eventually decided to forego their plans to rebuild and put the Macon Rd. property on the market.
Terry and Marti McNutt bought it this September. Retired Saline schoolteachers, avid gardeners, and tree lovers, they plan to break ground soon for their new cedar home. Terry says that they will also be devoted stewards of the property. As for the carved tree, he says, “I love it! All my guy friends love it. My wife and her friends aren’t as enthusiastic. But I love it, so it’s going to stay.”