By Jason Offutt
I’ve never really thought of Iowa as a dangerous place. It’s the home of the bridges of Madison County, after all, as well as the state fair butter cow, and corn. But, other than an attack on cholesterol, there’s something deadly lurking in the Hawkeye State.
It’s trees. And, yes, Iowa has trees – the trees of death.
Founded in 1857, Exira, Iowa, population 810, is the oldest town in Audubon County and home to the most violent tree in the Midwest. A gravel road just outside of town leads into Plow in the Oak Park.
Local legend has it that during the Civil War farmer Frank Leffingwell was working a field when he saw Union troops marching nearby. Leffingwell leaned his plow against a young oak tree and went off to join the war. He never returned.
Over the next 151 years, the tree literally swallowed the plow, which makes those apple-throwing trees from “The Wizard of Oz” seem kind of weak by comparison.
A brown sign with yellow letters and an arrow directs visitors right to the tree, and you know what? There’s actually a plow in the tree.
I know that locals, people who built this park, and those who post on the Internet about visits here, have said there’s a plow in the tree, but on the surface, a tree swallowing a Civil War-era single-blade plow is a bit hard to believe. But it’s there.
Sort of. There’s not much of the plow left to see, just a bit of the blade sticking from the south side of the oak, the end of the hitch sticking from the north, but it’s enough. The tree ate a plow. Lesson learned? Don’t commune with nature in Iowa. It will eat you.
Not only that, it might sneak up on you.
As amazing as it seems that a tree can consume a farm implement, 12 miles south and slightly east of the Plow in the Oak Park, grew something as alien to my sense of what is right and wrong as the Alien was to Sigourney Weaver in, well, “Alien.”
On a gravel road near Brayton, Iowa, is a tree in the road appropriately named Tree in the Road. In rural areas like this in almost any state drivers usually have to worry about topping a hill to find a deer, or cow, or tractor in the road. I guess in Iowa you have to worry about trees.
As the story goes, an early surveyor stuck a cottonwood branch in the ground to mark the boundary between Audubon and Cass counties, the branch took root and later came to mark the intersection of two roads. However, with roads mainly used by horses, no one thought about cutting it down.
That’s a cute story, but now that branch is a 100-foot-tall tree in the middle of the road. People drive badly enough without having to worry about immovable objects somewhere they don’t usually belong. You know, like in the road.
After quite a few twists and turns on the gravel, I found it. A 150-year-old cottonwood tree right in the middle of an intersection. What the heck.
Sorry Iowa, but you scare me.
Jason Offutt’s column has been in continuous publication since 1998 appearing in newspapers and magazines across the United States. Follow Jason on Twitter @TheJasonOffutt.