Trail Marker Trees — What’s Old is New

Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 2010

Have you ever thought about a Winnetka before navigation systems, MapQuest, street signs, paved roads, brick roads, dirt roads or any roads at all? When the area we call Winnetka had nothing but footpaths, how did the inhabitants know where to turn for medicinal plants, ceremonial sites or fresh water?

The original Green Bay Trail was likely blazed by wooly mammoths (see the article “G” is for Green Bay Trail). Mammoths could use their heightened sense of smell to find their way; Native American travelers developed a system of Trail Marker Trees to assist them in navigation.

The last remaining Indian Trail Tree in Winnetka, removed in 1984.

The last remaining Indian Trail Tree in Winnetka, removed in 1984.

Researcher Dennis Downes was introduced to the Trail Marker Trees as a young boy; his interest was piqued through contacts on the North Shore, especially in Winnetka. He has spent nearly 30 years of his adult life locating, documenting, and educating others about these historical icons. According to Downes, the Trail Marker Trees “were part of an extensive land navigation system in our country that already was in place long before the arrival of the first European settlers. While the Native Americans had a widespread trail system in place, the Trail Marker Trees served as exit signs off of these routes bringing them to areas of specific interest and then directing them back to the main route, much like the exit signs off of our major interstates today.”

Downes, one of the nation’s leading experts on Trail Marker Trees, has researched across the country with Native American experts, local historians, arborists, horticulturalists, and forest service personnel. Downes is continuing his work on these special trees—new and old. In addition to his Trail Marker Tree Exhibit held annually at the Grove Redfield Center, he is completing a book detailing the history behind these special signs from the past. He is also a noted sculptor, with several pieces installed in the Chicago area; for more information, please visit his website at www.downesstudio.net.

Downes stresses Native Americans’ need to distinguish between Trail Marker Trees and trees deformed by nature. He states, “The different shapes of these Trail Marker Trees were distinct in their appearance, and always followed some specific guidelines.”

The trees they used were young hardwoods, usually oaks, because they were flexible enough to be bent and would then keep that shape permanently.

Examples of these trees have been found all across the United States. Hundreds of years ago, Trail Marker Trees were prevalent throughout the North Shore.

Winnetka’s most prominent example was a white oak located on Fuller Lane. This “double trunk” tree was one of the most well-documented of Winnetka’s trail marker trees. When it rotted and was removed in 1984, the Historical Society was given the plaque that had marked its location.

Recently the Winnetka Park District added three unique oak trees to sites around Winnetka. These trees will be bent in a manner similar to the Fuller Lane tree. The planting and shaping was made possible through the collaboration of the Winnetka Historical Society, the Winnetka Park District Superintendent Robert Smith,  longtime resident Joe Fell and Downes. The newly shaped Trail Marker Trees can  be seen at Hill Park just north of the Indian Hill Train Station, in Indian Hill Park near the playground, and in the Crow Island Woods in front of the Schmidt-Burnham Log House. Patti Van Cleave, the executive director of the Winnetka Historical Society said, “We are so pleased to be a part of this project, as it will allow future generations to be aware of those that inhabited the area long ago.”

For a link to an interview of Downes by Janet Davies, click “here”:http://abclocal.go.com/wls/channel?section=news/entertainment&id=7453162

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3 Responses to “Trail Marker Trees — What’s Old is New”

  1. September 12, 2017 at 7:33 pm #

    We have one of these trees in our front yard in Winnetka at 1457 Asbury Avenue, so I’m not sure how the one removed in 1984 could be the last? Ours is still standing.

  2. September 21, 2017 at 2:20 pm #

    Yes, isn’t the giant oak in Merrill Park (intersection of Asbury / Gordon Terrace / Merrill) one of these trees?

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