VALDOSTA -- Gray skies and continuous rain didn't stop friends of the Viking Oak from gathering Friday morning to pay tribute to the fallen landmark.

On Wednesday, Aug. 4, the large oak tree succumbed to time, weather and the environment. It is located in the Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse parking lot on St. Augustine Road.

"We gather to celebrate the life of the mighty Viking Oak," said Ron Irwin, longtime member of the Lowndes County School System family, "a symbol of strength, stability, and steadfastness."

The early life of the Viking Oak is unknown. Its age has been estimated at between 250 and over 1,000 years. It is registered with the Live Oak Society, which lists trees known to be at least 100 years old.

"We don't really know how old it is," Irwin said. "It's too bad it had to die before we could find out."

However, he said the tree's age would be revealed in the near future, after it is removed from its present site. Still, Irwin said it's possible the Viking Oak provided shelter and warmth to the American Indians and European settlers, witnessed the birth of America, and withstood the turmoil of the Civil War.

Larry Rodgers said the tree was on the property that his great-grandfather, Byrd Hightower, bought in 1850. The oak once offered shade to farm workers who gathered under it to eat their lunches.

Rodgers said the tree, examined by the University of Georgia Extension Service in the 1960s, was believed to be about 500 years old. The next oldest oak is believed to be the Big Oak in Thomasville.

"(The Viking Oak) measured 28 feet in circumference when it was fully intact in 1960 ..." Rodgers said. "What's amazing is that it lasted all these years without being affected by the weather."

Irwin said it definitely witnessed the beginnings of the Lowndes County School System in 1871, standing on the periphery of the property on which Lowndes High School was constructed in 1966. The original Central Office was located right in front of it.

For 100 years, the tree continued to grow alongside the school system, firmly rooted in Lowndes County soil, refusing to succumb to life's ups and downs. It was not until 1977 that the Viking Oak showed any signs of weakness.

A storm in May of that year caused the tree to nearly split in half. When employees arrived at the Central Office on June 1, 1977, a large part of the Viking Oak was lying on the ground next to the remaining trunk.

"The Viking Oak demonstrates that no matter how old or how solid or how strong, every living thing is here on this earth for only a short time," wrote Wink Devane, former editor of The Valdosta Daily Times, on June 2, 1977.

Many thought the tree had seen its final day. However, the Viking Oak remained strong. Records indicate that four years before the accident the tree measured 25 feet and six inches in diameter. In 1996, it had grown four feet in diameter.

Still, Irwin said the lightning strike was the beginning of the inevitable.

In August 1977, tree surgeons salvaged the remaining tree. The fallen portions were used to create the 3,000-pound Viking statue that greets visitors and faculty, staff, and students at Lowndes High School.

"The mighty Viking Oak will live on in the hallway of Lowndes High School no matter what happens," Irwin said.

In 1992, the Central Office property was sold. A provision of the sale was that the Viking Oak and half an acre of space surrounding the tree be preserved for future generations. The buyer, Super Kmart, financed more tree surgery to continue efforts to save the community's oldest living resident.

"If this tree could talk, what tales it would tell," said Glenn Gregory, whose family was instrumental in preserving the Viking Oak.

He and his wife Sherri organized a dedication ceremony for the Viking Oak after the construction of Super Kmart. On Nov. 14, 1996, county, school, and city leaders unveiled a monument by the tree. The event was sponsored by the Lowndes County Board of Education, Valdosta-Lowndes County Historical Society, and Super Kmart.

"The Viking Oak was preserved because people cared," Gregory said.

Irwin said the challenge is to determine what will happen next.

Superintendent Steve Smith said a city arborist has indicated the Viking Oak is dead and needs to be taken down. The plan is to replace it with one its offspring, which have been blossoming for a few years, and a garden with small picnic area.

Smith said none of this would be possible without the cooperation and commitment of the Lowndes County School System and Board of Education, Valdosta-Lowndes County Historical Society, and Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse, which now owns the Super Kmart space.

"I envision something of beauty that can be enjoyed for years to come," he said.

As the Viking Oak is removed, Smith said the wood will be preserved for future projects in its honor. He said it will also be shared with families who have a special interest in the tree.

To contact reporter Jessica Pope, please call (229) 244-3400, ext. 255.

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