A deeply rooted legacy: The Council Oak

When the Eau Claire State Normal School in the 1920’s decided it needed its own athletic field, the undertaking to create it involved razing a large swath of small trees and underbrush to clear the land south of what is now Schofield Hall.  The process of taming Mother Nature for athletic endeavors left a bare patch of earth, with an exception: the massive 300-year old Council Oak tree, towering alone over Little Niagara Creek.  It became a campus landmark, acting as a gathering spot for students for decades.

Before its shade sheltered generations of students, the Council Oak oversaw the peace made between two Native American tribes.  According to local legend, the Oak marked the place where the Ojibwe and Dakota met in the 1850’s, following a century and a half of warfare.  These two tribes, along with other native people in Wisconsin, used these grounds as a meeting place.

The Council Oak was likewise honored and revered under the care of the college.  Serving as a symbol of unity, wisdom, and an intersection of cultures, it was a steady presence on a rapidly changing campus.  Its importance was such that, when art professor Dr. Kenneth Campbell designed a new seal for the university’s Golden Jubilee in 1966, he chose the unmistakable image of the Council Oak as its centerpiece.  Graduates of the School of Nursing hung their uniforms from its branches.  Students enjoyed its shade on a round bench built around its trunk.  When American Indian Studies courses came to UW-Eau Claire, the historical significance of the tree came to the forefront once again.

See a collection of historical images below.

However, the Council Oak’s legacy far outlived its physical form.  In 1966, not long after it was featured on the new university seal, it was struck by lightning in a storm that split its iconic silhouette in two.  It continued to stand until May 29, 1987, when a windstorm toppled the Oak for the final time.  Despite its physical destruction, the memory of the Council Oak continues to live on in a number of forms.  On Earth Day, 1990, a new Council Oak was planted near the site of the old one, in a ceremony officiated by Ojibwe tribal elders from the Lac Courte Oreilles and Lac du Flambeau bands.  In addition, wood salvaged from the original Oak was used in various works of art, including Confluence, a piece created by artist Robert T. Leverich.  It currently hangs in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences building, overlooking the place where its components once stood as part of a mighty tree.