What's the story of Austin's Treaty Oak?
This piece was originally produced for the ATXplained Live show in January 2020.
Austin’s Treaty Oak is a tree, but it’s also a story. It’s the kind of tale that’s recounted in children’s plays, like Austin’s version of the first Thanksgiving.
The story goes that around 600 years ago, a seed fell to the ground and grew into a mighty oak. It was one of a group of trees known as the Council Oaks because tribal meetings happened there. This special tree was said to have magical properties. One legend says that if you made tea with its acorns or leaves you would become invincible in battle; another held that drinking the tea made you a faithful lover.
The tree gained new significance after the Anglo colonists showed up. Stephen F. Austin is said to have signed a treaty with local tribes under the oak, granting it its name.
None of this really happened. (Or, if you prefer, there seems to be no evidence that it did.)
What’s more likely is that the Treaty Oak, on land that’s now near Fifth Street and Lamar, is part of an American tradition of declaring some trees special to protect them from the woodsman’s ax.
A legend grows
What we know to be true is that in the early 1900s, the oak was threatened. Austin had grown, and the farmer who owned the land around the tree could no longer afford the taxes. She had to sell, but she didn’t want the tree chopped down. A movement started up to save the tree, spearheaded by women’s groups. They shared the legends, held fundraisers and, in 1937, they got the city to preserve the Treaty Oak.
For the good part of a century, it stood on its specially designated lot, growing in stature and reputation. People visited the oak for picnics, school field trips and wedding proposals.
People retold the legends of the tree. Then, in 1989, someone decided to kill it.
“It was Texas Independence Day, and I noticed that there was some dead grass around the tree,” John Giedraitis, the city forester at the time, recalls.
He first thought a parks’ employee had used a little too much herbicide around the Treaty Oak. Not that big a deal, but the tree started looking really sick, so he decided to test the soil around it.
Those tests revealed a herbicide called Velpar, a compound that’s used only to kill trees. Giedraitis knew the city didn’t use it, so he filed a police report.
“They kind of gave me this case as kind of a joke,” says John Jones, the police sergeant assigned the case. “A tree got poisoned! Huh? Whaaaat?”
That’s the way everybody reacted.
“Who would want to murder a tree?” journalist Barbara Walters asked on “Good Morning America.” “And Why?” asked the front page of the International Herald Tribune.
“ABC, CBS, NBC started coming in. It was on the front page of The New York Times and USA Today,” remembers Giedraitis who, after interviews on every major network news show, became undoubtedly the most famous forester the country has ever known.
All that media coverage meant people started flocking to the tree.
In those first months, Giedraitis says, a steady stream of “thousands and thousands of people” visited the site. The city put out poster boards for the visitors to sign, but they also brought their own offerings.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many get well cards and cans of chicken soup."
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many get well cards and cans of chicken soup,” Jones says.
“They would leave chicken soup. Maalox. Guadalupe candles,” Giedraitis says. “This is Austin, so we had a lot of crystals buried around the tree. It was like going to a crystal factory some time.”
The place became a pilgrimage spot.
“The Dalai Lama, some of his monks were on tour, “ Giedraitis says. “So I said, ‘Can you come on down? We need all the help we can get.’”
The monks obliged, giving a traditional chant at the tree.
A group of psychics visited, one of them identifying the spirit of Treaty Oak as an ancient Egyptian queen. A Korean evangelical church gave a service at the tree. A Native American group held a private ritual. A Baptist group offered prayers.
“We had a limo full of witches come down from Dallas,” Giedraitis says. “We had everybody.”
‘Son of Oak’
While all this was going on, APD’s Jones was trying to catch the tree poisoner. But, at the police headquarters, he was also catching flak.
“The other investigators were getting kind of jealous. Like, ‘Why’s he getting all this attention?’” he says.
They started pranking him. The poisoning happened about 10 years after the Son of Sam serial killings in New York. Jones remembers one day he found a note on his desk with a message in a barely legible scrawl that said: “I now have a chainsaw. Stop me before I kill again.”
It was signed “Son of Oak.’”
“Funny guys,” says Jones, who still keeps the note as a memento.
When DuPont, the chemical company that makes Velpar, found out about the crime, it pitched in a $10,000 reward. After that, Jones got a call from a woman named Cindy Blanco, who told him she knew who poisoned the tree.
She seemed credible, so Jones asked her if she would wear a wire and try to get the suspect to admit to the poisoning on tape.
“I contacted my buddies in the undercover world,” he says, “and we wired her up.”
On the tape, a man named Paul Stedman Cullen says he poisoned Treaty Oak. He was arrested.
‘Bureaucrat with a blank check’
After the poisoning, Giedraitis had workers remove the contaminated soil from around the Treaty Oak. But that didn’t seem to help; the poison was already inside the tree. No one had ever tried to save a tree once Velpar was already inside it.
Then Giedraitis got a phone call: H. Ross Perot wanted to help save the tree.
At this point in history, Perot had not yet run for president, but he was already a national figure. He had founded a technology empire, sponsored the rescue of U.S. hostages in Iran, and became one of the few owners of an ancient copy of the Magna Carta.
“I had a blank check. … I could do whatever I want,” Giedraitis says. “I’m a bureaucrat with a blank check. What could be better than that? I mean this was gonna be fun.”
The city had assembled a brain trust of tree experts to consider plans to save the Treaty Oak. They put huge misters and shade structures up to keep the tree comfortable. After exhausting more traditional approaches, Giedraitis decided to try something no one had done before: He injected the tree with salt to flush the poisons out.
It pushed some of the poison out, he says, but “the tree continued to die.”
The team amputated huge sections of the root system that were full of poison, but to no avail. So Giedraitis went to his team with a plan to inject the tree with sugar water to give it extra energy.
“They said, ‘We're not even cautiously optimistic on that one. We have no idea,’” he says.
With nothing left to lose, they went for it.
But the tree continued to die.
Cullen was a farmworker who lived just outside Austin. At his trial, Blanco testified that he killed the tree as part of a ritual to get over his love for another woman.
She said Cullen told her he believed that as the tree died, so would his one-sided affections.
It was the late ‘80s and the tail end of the Satanic Panic. People were imagining black magic all over the place; occult rumors had swirled around the case from the very start.
Sgt. Jones had even conceded to looking into magic books checked out of the Austin Public Library for connections to the poisoning.
But to Judge Bob Perkins, who oversaw Cullen’s trial, the notion that the poisoning was part of a magic ritual always seemed “far-fetched.”
And when the police recordings of Cullen admitting to the crime were played in court, he didn’t really talk about magic at all.
“In those conversations he says, ‘I was in Texas prisons for something, and I resented it, and this was a way for me to pay Texas back,’” Perkins says, “by poisoning this tree. That’s why I think he did it.”
The stakes were high. The Treaty Oak was considered so valuable that its poisoning was a felony. Because of his criminal record, Cullen faced up to life in prison.
At the trial, he denied doing the poisoning. His lawyers said he’d been lying on the recording to impress Blanco. The fact that traces of Velpar had been found in his car meant nothing, they said. After all, he was a farmer who used chemicals on the job.
But the evidence was enough to convince the jury and he was sentenced to nine years in prison.
“It was really good that we did go to the jury on that,” Perkins says. “I was offended by this act. It was a big deal to me. So it's better for him that he went to the jury then to go to me on punishment.”
For the rest of his life, long after he left prison, Cullen denied that he had poisoned the tree. And while there was physical evidence and a taped confession, the one thing that never seemed clear was the motive. In the transcripts of the wire recording, even he can’t make sense of it.
“I wasn’t thinking too rational,” he says at one point. “We are not talking about rational thoughts here.”
Funeral for a tree
Giedraitis had spent over $100,000 trying to save the Treaty Oak. And after all that, he had to start planning its funeral.
“It was all dead, two-thirds of the tree was gone,” he says.
If he couldn’t save the tree, he wanted to make its death mean something. He grew cuttings from the Treaty Oak and planted one near its dying trunk.
Then city crews started cutting away.
“It was a big pile of wood,” he says. “And we said, ‘Well, we can have a BBQ?”
He was joking, of course. But the city did put out a call to artists and woodworkers, asking them to make things out of the wood. The plan was to give Treaty Oak a second life and raise money to plant more trees.
One woodworker recreated Sam Houston’s chair with the wood. Ken Pens made 600 Treaty Oak pens, one of which was gifted to then-Gov. George W. Bush.
Gavels were produced for sale to local lawyers and judges; Judge Perkins even got one.
Paintings of the tree were framed with Treaty Oak wood; one still hangs near Jones’ fireplace.
They made statuettes, little wooden boxes, tables, bowls. They even sold small commemorative slivers of the tree’s branches.
“It was like a pet rock,” Giedraitis says. “Everybody wanted a piece of the Treaty Oak.”
He says they raised close to $250,000 commemorating the tree – which was funny, because the tree didn’t die.
'It's like immortal'
After the dead limbs were cleared away, about one-third of the Treaty Oak recovered from the poisoning.
For the last 30 years, it’s been growing back. And the story of its poisoning has become part of its legend.
“It’s like immortal!” Giedraitis says. “It’s like 500 or 600 years old; it’s like it’s new again!”
Giedraitis is unsure exactly how the tree survived the poisoning, but he thinks all the attention, the prayers and the rituals must have helped. And he hopes people today take the time to visit Treaty Oak.
“Just slide under the fence. The park’s department is not going to arrest you,” he says. “Go up there and touch the tree. Touch something that’s 600 years old and alive. Bring a picnic, bring your kids. Let ’em climb on the limbs and jump up and down on it.”
“The tree will love it if you come visit,” he says.
While you’re there, you might also share this story. And if anyone asks if the Treaty Oak is still alive, the answer is “yes.”