Artists preserving Naperville-area tree for charitable causes
From beyond the grave, the Hobson Oak is speaking.
Artists are listening.
The 250-year-old bur oak near Naperville met its demise a year ago after DuPage County arborists determined its trunk was decaying, its limbs were drooping dangerously low and its outer reaches were encroaching on a bike path and a road.
But in an unconventional project that's already received an award from a regional tree initiative, the stately oak lives on through its wood -- not chipped unceremoniously to be spread across flower beds who-knows-where, but meticulously milled and kiln-dried into usable forms for a variety of artists.
At least 25 woodworkers, furniture makers, guitar makers, brewers and other creative types have picked up pieces of the tree that used to stand along the north side of Hobson Road east of Greene Road, near Naperville and Woodridge.
Now, they "wait for the wood to speak to you," say neighbors and woodworking enthusiasts Dave Horton and Perry Martin of Naperville.
"It's a pretty wood," Horton says. "The grain in it is spectacular."
Faced with the necessary end of the tree's long reign on its shoreline home near the East Branch of the DuPage River, leaders of the Naperville Parks Foundation last year were unwilling to let it go. At least not completely.
What seemed like an unlikely idea gained steam when the small foundation found a donor to pay the $11,000 cost of turning the massive oak's wood into logs, boards, chunks and shavings of manageable proportions.
Once Tim Greene of john greene Realtor picked up the tab, Naperville Parks Foundation President Troy Cooper says collaboration oiled the machine of Hobson Oak preservation into motion.
"It's a real testament to the community we live in that we can take something of value like the Hobson Oak," Cooper says, "and collaborate to put a project like this together."
The work, though incomplete, already shows Naperville Parks Foundation board member Mary Lou Wehrli the impressive ability of nature -- particularly trees -- to move people.
"A tree is anything but stationary on the landscape," she says.
Preservationists say everyone involved with the Hobson Oak project are People to be Thankful For -- the tree-chopping companies that discounted their prices; the real estate executive who chipped in to make processing possible; the Morton Arboretum, which is tending to 300 Hobson Oak saplings; the artists, who are hearing the tree's call and shaping it into new forms; and, eventually, the charities, which will auction off the art to benefit the parks foundation and local causes.
"We came up with this big vision of how it could happen," Cooper said, "and it's happening."
A tree reborn
In the year since the tree was cut down on Nov. 17, 2016, new grass has grown in its place along Hobson, and bicyclists can buzz by without hunching. Without the oak's visible presence, Cooper and the rest of the Naperville Parks Foundation have worked to get the preservation project going.
Horigan Urban Forest Products in Skokie and Rough Cut Woods in Serena, Illinois, took the first steps, meticulously milling, slicing and dicing the wood into salvageable pieces and working around areas of decay.
Wehrli Furniture in Naperville became the next hub, serving as a collection point for the first round of Hobson Oak lumber ready to be doled out to waiting artisans. Organizers have asked the first round of artists to complete their pieces by spring so they can be auctioned next fall or winter by Naperville-area charities.
Until then, Cooper says, brewers are leading the charge.
Solemn Oath Brewery in Naperville, Hop Butcher of the World in Chicago and Miskatonic Brewing Company in Darien all are joining the fun of incorporating oak chunks or shavings into their brewing process. Cooper says he hopes one or more of the brewers can finish a batch this year to raise awareness about the Hobson Oak project.
"They're right now in the experimental stages of making brews," Cooper says.
Artisans such as Naperville neighbors Horton and Martin are in the experimental stages, too, starting to see what will take shape from their planks and boards. The duo hopes to make a "river table" from two parallel slats, connected with a blue-tinted epoxy, as well as a hope chest that could be filled with blankets or treasures.
"The idea here is to build some things that are cool-looking and will sell to bring in the most money for charity," Martin says.
Guitar-maker Nate DeMont of DeMont Guitars in Oswego has moved beyond experimentation and has begun forming his pieces of oak into a custom electric instrument modeled after a vintage Japanese guitar.
"Half of a guitar is about looking awesome," DeMont says.
So he worked to incorporate rings, swirls and gaps in the wood into his work-in-progress.
"We're working around the wood more than anything else," he says.
All of the artists and professionals involved with saving the Hobson Oak see value in the work. For DeMont, it's about history. Monumental events modern suburbanites only can read about -- like the settling of the region and the Civil War -- all took place during the Hobson Oak's 250-year life.
"I love using the old trees because those have been there for hundreds of years," DeMont said. "It's just a good way for the tree to live on."