The Gun Tree – Treaty Tree or Odd Novelty or Money In The Bank?
This is what I challenged my students to prove or disprove. How can we find this tree or at least learn the story about it?
We did learn that oak trees grew around Chehalis. We also learned that flint locks were guns from the early 1800’s. We also found a Stanton Price living in Oakville, Washington. He told us that he had lived in Chehalis for 45 years but did not know anything about a tree with a gun in it. At the last moment, he told us that there was another Stanton Price living in Chehalis when he did. “We got each other’s mail from time to time. He had a business of some sort on Boistfort Avenue but we never met.”
The Daily Chronicle published a story about my students and their research into the Gun Tree and other items from Ripley’s Believe It or Not. We had heard that the tree was a “Treaty Tree” between the white settlers and the local Indians. That was included in the story. The next day, I received a phone call from a gentleman in Littlerock. He told me that the story about the tree was a total fabrication! I asked him how he knew that and he began to tell me a very interesting story about his heritage and direct ties to the legendary Gun Tree.
Dale Rutledge was in his 80’s at the time but was mentally very sharp. The tale of the Gun Tree was something he had known of since his childhood. He never strayed far from his childhood home nor from those memories. He lived on the farm his grandparents had homesteaded in 1860. Their home and enormous barn still stand. For some time, the home was also the local post office. Out in front of the home is a large, block of a rock which he said women used to step down from their wagons and horses to check their mail. He said that is “The Little Rock!” for which the town was named.
Mr. Rutledge told me that the tree originally stood near the corner of Littlerock Rd. and Sargent Rd. in southern Thurston County. Today, there is a gravel pit at the site. The first homesteader at that location was a Mr. Flanders, having settled there in the 1850’s. Mr. Rutledge told me that he had spoken with Mr. Flanders when he was a very young man. Mr. Flanders told him that the “old rifle quite working” and that he placed it in the fork of the oak tree as a joke.
Mr. Flanders sold his homestead to the Sargent family. This home was a short way from the Rutledge home and Mr. Rutledge’s mother was friends with the Sargents. Mrs. Rutledge was at the Sargent home in 1908 when Ezra Meeker came calling! Meeker was a hop farmer and hops were being wiped out throughout western Washington. Meeker had heard about the Gun Tree and wanted to buy it. He and Sargent apparently made a deal. After having his photographer friend, Stanton Price, take some pictures of the tree, a crew dug up the tree and loaded it into a railroad boxcar. Meeker took it to Seattle where he used it to raise some money.
Stanton’s picture was printed on a postcard then a slice or chip of the Gun Tree was tied to the card with twine. Apparently, realizing that no one would buy a souvenir from an odd prank of a tree, Meeker created a story about a local sheep farmer and the Indians. “The farmer caught some Indians stealing his sheep and he shot one. The Indians were going to kill him but he convinced them that he would put his rifle in the tree so they could see that he was not armed, so they let him live.” This made the Gun Tree into a Treaty Tree that saved the settler’s lives!” This tale was printed on the other side of the postcard and they were sold for ten cents each at The Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in 1909.
After the AYPE, the Gun Tree was left in a six foot section of the trunk. A story about it was published in the American Magazine Section of an un-named newspaper in 1935. A copy of the story was sent to Robert Ripley by John Louis Respol of New York on December 1, 1935.
The tree surfaces again in 1952, when Stanton Price sent a photograph and a letter to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. In his letter, Price stated that the rifle is a flint lock, dated 1839 and was one of thirteen sent to Captain Sam Williams who had charge of Block House Smith near Oakville, Washington. He goes on to say that he owns the Gun Tree and is interested in selling it. See the photo of the letter for more information about Meeker’s tale.
Ripley’s did not buy the Gun Tree because it was displayed at the Lewis Count Fair in the 1950-early 60’s though Price died in 1954. In 1994, I saw a 6′ piece of a tree with the remnants of a rifle encased in the crotch. The shop owner knew no history of it. At this time, I had not seen a photograph of the Gun Tree. The wood of the stock had rotted away but the barrel was solidly held at slight downward angle. I am confident that it was the same Gun Tree. A few months later, after seeing a photo and talking with Ripley’s about the Gun Tree, I went back to see if it was still there. Ripley’s wanted to buy it but, unfortunately, it was gone. When I asked the shop owner about it, he said a woman from the midwest was visiting some friends and saw it. She bought it as a Christmas gift for her husband because he “wanted a new rifle for Christmas!” He had no idea where it had gone nor who it was who bought it.
Now you know, the rest of the story!