Lake County’s Story of the Year: R.I.P. Honking TreeIt was, if you had to find just one word, surreal. A misty morning greeted drivers on the Highway 61 Expressway south of Two Harbors April 30.
By: Mike Creger, Forum Newspapers staff, Lake County News Chronicle
It was, if you had to find just one word, surreal.
A misty morning greeted drivers on the Highway 61 Expressway south of Two Harbors April 30.
To the observant ones, there might have been a sense of something missing.
Highway worker Steve Baublitz sensed it as he drove by at 6:15 a.m. The icon known as the “Honking Tree” had been cut down some time overnight.
Later in the day, the absence of the honking tree was obvious as cars lined the highway and people got out to take a look.
Hands to mouths. Indignation. Thousands of words on the internet in homage to the tree and disgust at the act. Memorials are planned. Songs are written.
It was easily the story of the year in Lake County. While the impact on daily life here can be debated, the explosion of comments and feelings about the tree can’t be denied.
When the expressway was built in the 1960s, it was the only tree left standing in the median. It generated a tradition for Lake County drivers, especially Two Harborites, who honked as they passed by.
The tree meant you were home.
SuperOne store employee Treasaigh Anderson was stunned by the news at the time. “It was a tradition for us to honk as we headed home,” she said. “The kids would say we had to honk for each one of them as we went by. When I was a kid, whenever I saw that tree I knew I was almost home. I'm almost in tears.”
A few days later, the tree was trimmed and hauled away. Then the debate began on what to do with the leavings.
Two Harbors Mayor Randy Bolen, who was just learning the intricacies of his job since being elected in November and sworn in in January, said he had “absolutely no idea” the tree story would be so big.
“Just do a Google search and type in ‘honking tree.’ It’s unbelievable,” he said.
He said his first reaction to news of the tree’s demise was a groan. “It was the last thing we needed to deal with.” But over time, Bolen said he learned to appreciate the passion of those who displayed very “personal feelings” about the tree and understood those who didn’t care, who said “it’s just a tree.”
He said more people would have been upset if the city had done nothing in reaction.
The official city response has been to sell slices from the tree limbs, medallions with a memorial imprint, at city hall to help pay for a permanent art display planned for a space in city limits on Highway 61 across from Dairy Queen. Some medallions are still available for sale.
Renowned chainsaw artist John Gage will get final details this month on what he is expected to create from the trunk of the honking tree. It will likely resemble the Two Harbors Lighthouse, Bolen said.
The mayor hopes to have something to put up by the spring.
He said the honking tree issue has been an odd one that he feels was handled properly. “You go with what you’re dealt,” he said. “Sometimes you need to make the best with the cards you have.”
Of course, a crime investigation continues.
Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson said the case remains open and he refused to concede that whoever cut it down will remain a mystery.
“If it quiets down, we may end up eventually finding out,’’ he said. “Whether we’d be able to prosecute anybody might be a different story.’’
Johnson said there were many rumors of who did it, including it being a high school prank or being cut down by a distraught suicidal man. People were questioned, but no firm evidence developed.
“Normally, in a situation of vandalism we would have heard something through the grapevine or through the school or through a friend, but I think with all the publicity and all the people so shook up about it – that closed everybody’s mouth,’’ Johnson said. “It became such a huge headline and it did mean a lot to so many people. The people involved just (likely) said, ‘Don’t say a word.’’’
Johnson and Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk both said this week that their offices investigated whether a troubled Two Harbors native who took his own life during a standoff with police a week after the tree was cut down had anything to do with the cutting.
Quincy Pederson, 38, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Cook County May 5. A week earlier, Pederson allegedly robbed a sandwich shop in the Twin Cities, shot at police and touched off a statewide manhunt.
Pederson had battled a crack cocaine addiction and had just gotten out of a drug treatment facility and halfway house.
Johnson and Falk said no equipment was found in Pederson’s vehicle that would indicate his involvement in the cutting and the time he was known to be in the area didn’t match with the time the tree was likely cut.