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Kansas State Capitol Cottonwood Tree

Kansas State Capitol, 1904One of our state symbols, a grand old cottonwood tree at the Kansas State Capitol held a mystery. Is it true? Or is it an old yarn? Can a tree grow from a stake driven into the ground? This storied tree once grew near the south and east wings of the Capitol.

The tree served as a shady recluse for heat weary citizens and such dignitaries as presidents Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and William Howard Taft, and Vice President Charles Curtis who gave speeches from beneath its great limbs.

There were those who swore that one of the stakes workers had driven into the ground rooted and provided a beautiful old cottonwood tree. The stakes were used to attach guy-wires for a derrick that lifted building supplies to workmen above.

A more believable account of the tree's origin is noted in a letter by T. J. Anderson to the Kansas Historical Society dated 1909. He had moved to Topeka in 1865 and had purchased a brick house on Jackson Street facing the Capitol. When ground was broken and stone moved to the area, he noticed a small, "about three feet" high sapling growing between some of the large stones. He went home, secured some large stakes, and drove them around the sapling to protect it. He and a professor, Henry Worrall, took an interest in preserving the tree during construction of the building.

Fire took a toll on the magnificent old tree. In 1882 a soldier's reunion was held on the statehouse grounds. One of the sheds that had been a shelter to workmen caught fire and the tree was badly scorched. These marks were evident throughout the tree's life.

The Topeka tornado of 1966 caused further damage to the old tree. In 1983 Jack Brier, then secretary of state, made every effort to "save the cottonwood" from disease and damage. Large limbs on the 90-foot cottonwood were supported by wires attached to the 15-foot circumference of the trunk. In spite of Brier's efforts, the tree finally succumbed to more winds and had to be removed.

A part of the trunk was salvaged and made into a chain-saw chair. It was presented to Brier and the secretary of state's office by the artisan and was stored in the basement of the Capitol for many years. In 1989 it was transferred to the Kansas Historical Society.

A plaque marks a young cottonwood tree (about 20 feet tall) that has been planted near the same spot where the parent tree once stood. Cuttings had been taken from the original tree and nursed along by the grounds crew. While the original tree is gone, a direct descendant grows today in its place.

The cottonwood (Populus sargentii) became the Kansas state tree in 1937. It gains it name from the seed pods it releases, which are surrounded by a cottony fuzz allowing them to float great distances of the breeze.

Entry: Kansas State Capitol Cottonwood Tree

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: March 2009

Date Modified: January 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.