After tornadoes left a wreckage of timber across southwest Mississippi in December, Billy Haygood of Liberty asked Mike Daughdrill to assess tree damage on property in Franklin County. And that was when Daughdrill came upon what may be the biggest tree he’s ever seen in his 50 years in forestry.
On Tuesday, I met up with Daughdrill and retired Amite County forester Earl Alford to go check out the behemoth, a swamp chestnut oak, also known as cow oak, north of Garden City.
We rendezvoused with Haygood at the entrance to the property and set off on foot to see the tree.
We tromped through swampy woods, crossing and re-crossing a brook, mucking through switch-cane thickets, trying to sidestep the ice-pick thorns of trifoliate orange bushes. Low to the ground were newly sprouted leaves of trillium and may apple along with tiny twinkles of wild violet blossoms. Above us towered all sorts of giants, including oak, pine and poplar.
The object of our quest stood at the edge of a baygall, or small flooded expanse. Beside it lay a monstrous branch that had broken off.
“I need to come up and cut that limb up and make some bowls out of that,” said Haygood.
Daughdrill and Alford got busy measuring. The tree had a circumference of 151⁄2 feet, diameter of 59 inches, crown width of 107 feet 2 inches, height of 117 feet.
It’s a bit smaller overall than the state champion in Warren County, which has a circumference of 21 feet 2 inches, diameter of 82 inches, crown of 931⁄2 feet and height of 92 feet.
The national champion, in Virginia, has a circumference of 23 feet, crown of 109 feet and height of 123 feet.
Regardless, Daughdrill and Alford — who have spent their lives in the woods — agreed it’s the biggest tree they’ve seen, and certainly the biggest cow oak in this area.
The trunk is straight, with four logs, totaling 64 merchantable feet — not that Haygood is planning to cut it.
Haygood said he first ran across the tree after his wife Billie inherited the land, known as the McMillan place, in the late 1990s. An elderly neighbor used to squirrel hunt here as a boy and recalled the tree being there then, which is no wonder.
The property borders the Homochitto National Forest and is a short distance west of where 1930s outlaw Texas Red had his bar.
Haygood’s mother-in-law, Doris Whittington Adams, reminisced about Texas Red when I interviewed her in 2017.
“I lived less than a mile from where this guy stayed,” she said then. “I passed there. I saw him a lot of times. I rode horses down there.”
She said Texas Red was a tall man, while his partner, the Oklahoma Kid, was short and always wore a black hat. When a posse went to try to arrest Red, Adams’ brother Gene McMillan showed them the way.
“We heard the shots from our house,” Adams said.
One posse member was killed, and Red and the Kid escaped, prompting a huge manhunt that ultimately ended in Red’s death.
“They would gather at our house to decide where everybody was going to search. They would do that every morning. Mama would make coffee,” Adams said.
“There were some scary times back then.”
If trees could talk, the giant cow oak would no doubt add to her story, and many others.