Hollow Giants: Appalachian Settlers and the American Sycamore

My fascination with hollow trees began as a child, when I watched Sam Gribley set up camp inside one in the film adaptation of My Side of the Mountain.

Several weeks after watching it, I convinced my younger brother to try to help me burn out the inside of a hollow tree just like Sam had. Our efforts were cut short by our father’s timely intervention. The experience left us with a valuable lesson on fire safety instead of the Thoreau-style wilderness retreat we had envisioned.
Several years later we moved, and in the creek bottom behind our house, we discovered the tree of our dreams. It was a giant sycamore, about ten feet in diameter with a substantial hollow in its lower trunk. With a little work, the hollow became large enough for two boys and their frontiersman aspirations.
As I got older, my interest in Appalachian history grew. I started finding stories of early frontier settlers living in hollow trees. I even ran across some old photos like these:

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The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club rests at a hollow chestnut tree.

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The Shelton Family next to a Castanea dentata in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The oldest, recently-documented, American Chestnut was a dead stem at least 270 years old.

Photo © courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains National Park Library and The American Chestnut Foundation

While the trees pictured above are chestnuts, most of the time the trees in the stories I found were identified as sycamores.This makes sense because the American Sycamore is one of the largest trees in the Eastern United States. They can reach massive portions and as they age, the lower portion of their trunks often becomes hollow with little effect on the continued growth of the tree. Even with openings on one side, these trees stand firm because the texture of their wood is such that the outer shell of the trunk is strong enough to withstand the stress of storms through decades of time.

The 18th Century

One of the earliest mentions I found of people living in hollow sycamores is the story of Joseph Hampton. In 1744 Hampton settled in the Shenandoah Valley. He and his two sons lived for most of the year in a hollow sycamore in what is now Clarke County, Virginia.

Another story was from 1749, when French explorer, Father Bonnecamp described in his journal a massive Cottonwood tree he found on the banks of the Ohio. His narrative tells of twenty-nine men sitting side-by side around the interior of this huge hollow tree. Cottonwoods, however, are not native to the area and research indicates that he was probably also describing a sycamore.

Jacob Marlin and Stephen Sewell, the first white residents of the Greenbrier Valley, took up residence at the mouth of Knapps Creek, the present site of Marlinton, West Virginia, in 1749. They were discovered living there by surveyors John Lewis and his son, Andrew, in 1751. Marlin and Sewell had built a cabin together but later argued over religion and separated. By the time the Lewises found them, Sewell had moved from the cabin to a nearby hollow sycamore tree as the best way to avoid further dispute and preserve his friendship with Marlin. Their remarkable story soon became part of regional folklore and history.

To give you an idea of scale, you could take one refrigerator and turn it sideways in the base of this tree. In 1761, two brothers, John and Samuel Pringle, stationed at Fort Pitt during the French and Indian War, deserted. The brothers hid out in the wilderness. They eventually moved into the Monongahela Valley where they worked with a trapper by the name of John Simpson until some time in 1764. After having a quarrel with Simpson, the Pringles moved into the Buckhannon River Valley and made their home in a large hollow sycamore tree. The descendant of that tree still stands at Pringle Tree Park in Buckhannon, West Virginia.

Other giant sycamores were discovered by none other than George Washington when he visited the Ohio Valley in 1770. He wrote about them in his diary on November 4th:

. . . just as we came to the hills, we met with a sycamore about sixty yards from the river of a most extraordinary size, it measuring, (three feet from the ground,) forty-five feet round, lacking two inches; and not fifty yards from it was another, thirty-one feet 4 inches round (three feet from the ground also). George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, vol. II

Washington found these giant trees on the Three Brothers Islands in the Ohio River.
Twenty years later, French botanist André Michaux found the same sycamore, and recorded that “at five feet from the ground it was 40 ft and 4 inches in circumference, and consequently 14 feet in diameter.” 14 feet in diameter! That’s about the height of two refrigerators with one stacked on top the other, or 1/3 the height of a telephone pole.

The History of Washington County, Ohio mentions a Mr. Archer who eloped with another man’s wife, ran away to the secluded region of Cady’s Run, and “there lived romantically with his companion in a hollow sycamore tree.”

The same book also tells of Oliver Dodge, one of the original 48 settlers who came to Campus Maritius  (Ohio) in April, 1788, who lived for one year in a hollow sycamore.

Adam Shriver and his wife Christina settled in Washington County, Pennsylvania in 1784. Their first winter in Washington was a rough one. It is believed that they found a large hollow sycamore tree on the stream that runs through the Brazilla Stephens Farm, cleaned it out, and used it as a temporary home until they could build a cabin. (Special thanks to Glenn Jenkins for sharing this story about her ancestors.)

Thomas Spencer Sharpe was one of the early settlers of Tennessee. He came to Tennessee in 1776 and was the first Caucasian to clear land and plant corn there. He spent the winter of 1778 living inside a giant hollow sycamore. 

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Thomas Spencer Sharpe and his hollow tree.

Source: Early History of Middle Tennessee by Edward Albright

Frederick Stiltner was a Hessian mercenary in the British army during the Revolutionary War, he deserted and made his way to the area of present day Grundy, Virginia. He is said to have reached Sword’s Creek in Russell County where he spent a few weeks with a widow and her two children. When he left there, he crossed the Sandy Ridge and traveled down the Levisa River to the lower end of where Grundy now stands.

Local legend is that Stiltner, (also called Stinger, and Stitner), spent the winter in a hollow poplar tree, with his rifle, and two hunting dogs. He survived until spring when he returned to the widow and married her, and brought her and her children back to Watkins Branch where they built a cabin. (See The Bountiful and Beautiful, A Bicentennial History of Buchanan County, Virginia by Nancy Baker. Special thanks to Kimberly Ann Moore for sharing this story.)

The 19th Century

In 1802, André Michaux’s son also made a trip to the Ohio River, and he found a sycamore even bigger than the one George Washington and his father had seen. This one measured 47 feet in circumference at 4 feet from the ground (see The North America Sylva – Volume 2, by François André Michaux).

That same year, Seth Bailey, a native of Massachusetts received land on Vienna Island in the Ohio River. He moved there and built a cabin, but winter set in before he could build a shelter for his livestock. So, Seth made use of a hollow sycamore 17 feet in diameter. He cut a door in the trunk and was able to comfortably stable all of his livestock inside. (See History of Washington County, Ohio: With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches, pg. 635)

The state of Kentucky also has a history of hollow tree dwellings. David Cecil Mounts and his wife Margaret ‘Peggy’ Cline settled in the Tug River area in the early 1800’s. They lived in a large hollow tree while they were building their permanent cabin.

George Burkhart moved to Kentucky in 1800. A newspaper ran an article about him that describes his home:

He settled on Crank's Fork of Cumberland River, fourteen miles south of Harlan Court-house, and with his family took shelter in an enormous hollow sycamore tree. By the way, Harlan County is not wholly unlike the big-tree district of California. This tree was forty-five feet in circumference, and necessarily fifteen feet in diameter. In this romantic abide he and his wife and the five children had beds, tables, chests and such other furniture and things as a wild mountain house usually contains. The Atchison Globe (Atchison, Kansas) 22 May, 1885

A story is told in The Squirrel Hunters of Ohio by N.E. Jones, about a newly wed couple in Pickaway County, Ohio who moved into a hollow sycamore on the banks of the Scioto River in 1872. Jones gives the dimensions of the tree as 45 feet in circumference at 3 feet from the ground, with the hollow space inside being 14 feet in diameter, and the doorway being 3 feet wide at the base and 7 feet tall.

Jones also tells of “a large, hollow sycamore in Pike County, near Waverly, [that] made a commodious blacksmith shop and horse-shoeing establishment for many years.”

Modern Day

After reading all of these historical stories, I started to wonder if there might still be living sycamores big enough for a person to live in, in spite of all the logging and taming of the wilderness that has happened since the first settlers came to Appalachia. So I set out to answer this question, and what I found surprised me:

The Kokomo Stump

The first thing I discovered is that remains of some of these forest giants still exist. In Kokomo, Indiana there’s a hollow sycamore stump over 57 feet around, 18 feet wide, and 12 feet high!

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This stump can be found in Highland Park in Kokomo, Indiana.

The Webster Springs Sycamore

The Webster Sycamore was the largest living American sycamore tree in West Virginia until its felling in 2010. It was 112 feet high, and 25.75 feet in circumference. It held the title of largest sycamore in the United States for a while in 1955. On September 3, 2007, a malicious fire was set in the base of the Webster Sycamore’s trunk. The tree survived the blaze, but suffered irreparable damage. The West Virginia Division of Forestry performed a safety and risk assessment of the tree, and determined that structural mitigation was not feasible, and that the Webster Sycamore was to be “considered an extreme hazard”. Following the fire, experts recommended that the Webster Sycamore be felled or fenced off as a safety measure. According to the Division of Forestry, the tree was finally brought down during the summer of 2010. At the time of its death, the tree was estimated to be over 500 years old. (Special thanks to Brenda Rose for telling me about this tree.)

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Photo by: Brenda Rose

Here’s a video of the tree after it was burned.

The Largest Sycamore in the US

Luke’s Note: I have an ongoing interest in this subject, and I’m sure there are more stories of people living in hollow trees out there. Feel free to add any you’ve heard in the comments section. Who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll write a book about it.

I did some digging and was able to get in contact with some people who know the location of the largest living sycamore in the United States. After I got the necessary permit, a ranger agreed to take me to film it. Because the tree is living, I was asked not to disclose it’s location.

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Photo by: Luke Bauserman

It’s hard to describe the feeling I had when I first laid eyes on this ancient tree, but I think reverence is a good word for it. At 28 feet in diameter and 132 feet high, this tree is about half the size of the one that George Washington discovered.

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Photo by: Luke Bauserman

To give you an idea of scale, you could take one refrigerator and turn it sideways in the base of this tree.

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Photo by: Luke Bauserman

Update: At the time I visited this tree, it was considered the largest sycamore in the US. But a few days later, americanforests.org announced a new record holder that beat this tree by a few points.

The Jeromesville Giant

After seeing the biggest sycamore in the United States, I thought my journey was over. But then I heard of another tree, it was even bigger, but due to some abnormalities it had not been granted the title of largest sycamore in the United States. While access to location of this monster is limited, it’s not secret. In fact, the little town of Jeromesville, Ohio celebrates its existence every October.

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Photo by: Luke Bauserman

The reason that this sycamore isn’t included on the national registry of trees is because a lab did a DNA analysis on it and the test revealed that it has genetic material from more than one tree in it, meaning that multiple seedlings sprouted in the same location and they welded together as they grew.

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Photo by: Luke Bauserman

This technicality doesn’t reduce the awe this tree inspires, though. I’ve seen some big sycamores, but this tree redefined big for me. At 48 feet in circumference, it’s bigger than sycamores Washington and Michaux discovered! And it’s estimated to be 790 years old.

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Photo by: Luke Bauserman

When I stepped inside, I was immediately stuck by how cave-like the interior was. If you were a frontier settler and winter was setting in, and you were in need of shelter, but didn’t have the time to make your own, a tree like this tree would be a welcome find.

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Photo by: Luke Bauserman

 Luke’s Note:

I have an ongoing interest in this subject. Who knows, maybe I’ll write a book about it one of these days. I’d love to hear any stories you know about people living in hollow trees in the comments below. I’ll add them to this article and be sure to give you credit.

7 Comments

  1. Catherine January 15, 2017 at 11:26 pm

    Luke, what an amazing story! Once again, awe inspiring content.

  2. Ronnie March 21, 2017 at 11:08 pm

    This was a very interesting read. At the risk of sounding condescending I’d like to point out that there isn’t a Grundy County, Virginia. I think you meant Buchanan County, which is the county that the town of Grundy is in and the Levisa (you had it spelled as Lavisa) River flows through. I only noticed this because this is my neck of the woods. I really enjoyed this article.

    • Luke March 22, 2017 at 12:00 am

      Thanks, Ronnie! I appreciate the info. Most of my sources for this article are ancient and spelling is all over the map. I’ll correct those errors.

  3. Ann Marie Ackermann March 22, 2017 at 1:35 pm

    Such a fascinating post! I grew up not far from Kokomo, Indiana, and the next time I’m there, I need to find that tree!

  4. CindyDonahey December 25, 2017 at 8:15 pm

    Some of the oldest sycamores dwindle down to almost nothing height wise. They just leave a very large ring or framework of bark with possibly a small branch. The tree has to be left alone. I found one along the Olentangy some years ago. People would put seeds of various sorts in stumps including that of sycamores. Or plant wildflowers.

    Big fires harm. A little one in the middle does not.

    When babies were lost to miscarriage, this was considered an apt place to put the remains. Along with seeds. Some of these were planted in graveyards.

    Land restoration and multiple trees planted close go together. Except for firewood, they have no use in traditional construction.

    Osage orange naturally multiple seeds also due to the nature of the seedhead.

    A tree suckered next door. Construction workers spent some time on the job deciding what one to keep. Tree was lost later anyway. I have heard that in the 1800s, people watched their self sown saplings and culled. You have to look at the rootball to see remnants.

    Then there is the subject of unlike trees married. I nice saw a crabapple and apple tree entertwined in a front yard. To off the subject.

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