Jennifer Rowland Sheppard’s mom, Sue, started dating Jennifer’s dad in 1968. That courtship lasted 10 years before marriage.
He loved farming and he ran cattle,” Sue said from her daughter’s home in Timber Ridge during quarantine. “There was a beautiful, big Oak tree there and we would meet under the tree before we were married.”
When it was lunchtime, she’d take her future husband, Albert, lunch to the massive tree that graced the family farm on Tuckers Gap Road in Lebanon.
“We’d sit under the tree on the truck tailgate and eat lunch,” she remembers.
Albert passed, 10 years ago, this October. Majestic in size and form, through the decades it was known as “the tree.”
“After we married, it was the meeting place,” Sue said. “He would call and ask what I had for lunch and say, ‘meet me at the tree.’”
Everyone knew which tree it was. The mighty Oak commanded the respect it de-served, smack dab in a big hayfield.
“It was a gorgeous tree,” recalls Sue.
“Beautiful and humongous. After the grands came along, it was their meeting place as well.”
Sue reckons the tree must be 100 years old, or more. Through the seasons, this family had picnics, get-togethers, sunny day siestas and more under the tree that sidles up to a narrow gravel road that goes deep into the farm.
Jennifer got engaged to husband Micah under this tree. Their daughter, Maggie Grace, turned 2 April 11.
For over a century, this tree stood tall and took many hits when storms were restless, and winds were high. Its roots were deep, and they held strong.
The March 3, EF-3 tornado’s winds upwards of 136 miles per hour were simply too much for this aged and mighty Oak. Her roots let go and she toppled to the ground in what was likely a graceful and dignified bow.
The original family farmhouse, built in the late 1880’s, also took a huge hit from the ferocious winds. The ceilings caved in, as did the ancient chicken coop, outhouse, and smokehouse. It is futile to repair the house, but they will salvage the large logs, for keepsakes. A barn was demolished.
But it’s the Oak tree still laying in the field that puts collective daggers in the hearts of this family. The uprooted tree’s naked roots are exposed and reach as high as a tall man.
Jennifer was determined to somehow capture the tree’s integrity and memories. She heard about a Mt. Juliet woodworker, Bruce Humphrey, who makes boxes and bowls out of family trees that are down. When the March 3 tornado blew down stately, timeworn, family mascot trees across our region he reached out to families to say he could do something “small” for them. For these families, this gesture and token of empathy is not “small” but huge.
“It’s the least I can do,” he said from his workshop on Benders Ferry Road. “They are beautiful, a memento, some-thing of beauty that will last a lifetime or more.”
He thought the process of being gifted with a bowl made from the wood of a once living family favorite would “ease the process” for them.” It’s the overall process that runs deeper than an old tree’s roots but encompasses a gamut of feelings.
And, they are gifts from him.
“When it comes down to it,” said Bruce. “If no bowls are made by me, these ancient trees would be no more than fire-wood. I can’t let that happen.”
Bruce likes to go out to the downed trees to choose the best piece of wood to work with. In addition to Jennifer’s gorgeous bowl made of Oak [one of the trickier woods to hone], Bruce has crafted different sized bowls from Walnut, Maple, Cherry, and other types of wood. All are one of a kind, with different gradations of colors and veining.
He shared a picture of his very first turned bowl.
“At that time, I thought it was pretty great,” he said.
“Looking at this picture, the walls are too thick.”
Turning wood is a rather new hobby for Bruce. He works full time. Several years ago, after work, he found himself “falling down in front of the TV and so bored.”
“I went to the University of YouTube,” he said with a laugh. “I was too stupid to be scared of losing fingers.”
He thinks that first bowl ended up the burn pile. If he didn’t burn some, his workshop and home would be inundated with the beautiful pieces.
“I look back at them as from my ‘youth period,’” he said. Many of the bowls are literal works of art, and, some can be used for decoration and even fruit bowls. These recent, heartfelt pieces of wood gifted to grateful tornado victims are some of his favorites. He also sells bowls made from treasured trees that have finished their time on earth to non-tornado victims.
The Rowlands recently received a memorial bowl from Bruce to help them remember the mighty Oak that was their meeting place for generations.
The bowl’s home is at Jennifer’s right now. Her mom dreamed of a rocking chair made from her favorite tree, so she can sit in it and remember. The bowl is the perfect piece and now an irreplaceable family heirloom.
Sue always said no matter what, this Oak would be pre-served and never taken down by man. She said only if the hand of God took it down, could she live with it.
“And, it was an act of God,” she said. “The bowl is absolutely beautiful. My new grandbaby never got to meet Pa Albert, but she has this bowl that represents many of his memories. It gives us comfort.”
This grandma said she’s yet to go down and see the toppled tree.
“Too many memories,” she said. “I’ve not been able to go back there. I have not done it yet. It’ll break my heart.”
To see Bruce’s works, go to riverviewwood.com or on Facebook.