Editor’s note: This story by Esther Sayler and the accompanying tree photo won first place in the “Most Interesting Story” category of the Great Bend Tree Board’s first Trick or Tree Contest, October 2013.
Little Arthur (the second Arthur M. Sayler of four so named) was only 10 years old when he first saw the wonderful cottonwood tree with its dancing leaves, full- grown, standing alone in a dusty wheat field south of Albert, Kansas. It was a time when he would walk to the little one-room school house for his lessons and then help with chores after school. He loved caring for the horses and reveled in the rich smells of the big old barn, redundant with odors of hay, leather and manure. This little boy, often barefoot, dreamed of the day when he would farm the rich soil around the tree, maybe pulling an old three-bottom plow along with a steel-wheeled tractor.
Art Senior or “Big Art” came to realize that dream and continued to love the old tree which had weathered through many a storm, a tornado or two and certainly the Dirty Thirties. Horses were replaced with tractors and his affections switched to his family, assorted dogs through the years and his egg-laying chickens whom he affectionately called, “my old biddies.” The tree became a local, albeit personal, landmark.
When his son, Arthur, (the third of the four) took over farming the much-loved ground, he also referred to the site as “The Cottonwood Field.” It was known as such to the elevator whenever a truckload of wheat came lumbering in, toted slowly by the turquoise wheat truck affectionately called “Big Boy.” “The Cottonwood Field” was noted on many a wheat ticket, whether rich in bushels or dangerously lacking in yield. Any farm help was sent to undercut or disc by directions often starting with, “Go down past the cottonwood tree and ...”
The wonderful old tree had five main “branches,” probably beginning their life as water sprouts from the main trunk. One Christmas (1997), Art Sr. was driving to town with his son, “Little Arthur (now 6’2” and married with family and full-time farmer himself). They were buying boxes of oranges for the Albert Methodist Church Christmas Eve Service. In this day and age, Art Sr. would be considered a lay minister. Then he was the stalwart, foundation, money collector, and a mainstay of the church. His favorite time of year was Christmas and he was always in charge of the sacks of treats handed out to the children following the Christmas Eve service. Wearing his Christmas bow time and in a nice, brown wool suit, he would give a “welcome” and pick children to ring the church bell loudly and long. Another lucky youngster would light the Advent Candles. Taking its place, proudly, in the northeast corner of the little church was a huge evergreen. NEVER purchased, always cut down from some neighboring field (with permission), the tree was ungainly, usually lopsided and decorated with ornaments both antique and shop-worn.
Every year Art Sr. would scout out the best local bargains for candies (orange slices, chocolate stars, peanut brittle, ribbon candy, and more); nuts (hazelnuts, pecans, almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts and peanuts — all in the shell); and huge, juicy apples and oranges. There was a very (I mean VERY) exact sequence and method to assembling the sacks of goodies and our children (including the fourth Arthur M. Sayler) would be recruited to help.
This particular December in 1997, Art Sr. and Art Jr. were coming home from a successful hunt for fresh, big oranges when a young woman, distracted by her cell phone call to the boyfriend and driving on icy roads, crashed into the two Arthurs, injuring Art Jr. badly and killing Art. Sr. Unfortunately, she too was killed. It was a very sad Christmas for two families and a tremendous loss to the Albert Church.
Why go into this story you ask? Well, soon after that horrible accident, one of the huge limbs of the old cottonwood tree, for no explicable reason, fell off the tree. Then, in 2007, another limb fell from the tree, leaving a second noticeable gap. That was the year Beatrice Sayler, (wife of Art Sr.) died in her sleep, at home, at the age of 102.
You can still see this grand old tree (at least 100 years old), minus a limb or two, in “The Cottonwood Field” south of Albert. It has outlived many wonderful people, shaded deer and jack rabbits, provided perch for red-tailed hawks, survived rain and hail and thrived with its dancing leaves in many glorious Kansas spring-time days and frosty winter Christmas seasons.