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Gulfport grieves old cedar shade tree after tornado

Some say it's older than the city itself. Others aren't so sure.

Before it became a celebrated storm casualty on June 6, the old cedar in front of Yummy's at 2914 Beach Blvd. in Gulfport stood tall to the sky for decades, provided shady relief from summer's heat, and offered the perfect vantage point for parades.

The spreading cedar fell victim to a brief tornado that tore through the town on a Thursday morning. The strong wind broke off several large branches, dropping a few on the north corner of Yummy's, crushing the front porch and smashing furniture.

The mangled cedar has since been trimmed, leaving a large trunk, sawed-off limbs and one large branch intact, pointing north.

"That tree, among all the trees along Beach Boulevard, has been the most beloved," said Daniel Hodges, former manager of the Gulfport Fresh Market. "More people focus on that tree than any other, especially during the (twice monthly) Art Walks.

"I remember a lot of kids rope-climbing that tree, too," he said. So do others.

Gulfport's former mayor, Mike Yakes, remembers bringing his grandkids to the tree when it was filled with pulleys and ropes for climbing.

"They loved hanging out in that tree,'' he said. "It was pretty special to them."

Kristen Bohlander came from St. Petersburg to take photos of the damaged old cedar for her kids.

"When my son Evan heard about the tree, he was very sad and wanted to come see it," she said. Evan played around the tree for several years while his 13-year-old sister, Mya, performed onstage at the Art Village Courtyard where Yummy's is.

"We used to play hide-and-seek, and toss balls through the branches," he said. "I like that tree. I'm going to miss the shade."

He's not the only one who will miss the shade of the storm-damaged cedar. Jason Webb, owner of Kilpatrick Produce, benefited from the cedar's large branches as he sold fruits and vegetables at Gulfport's farmers market.

"Normally we set up about eight tents," he said. "Without the shade, we just set up a few more. But it's a big loss for sure."

Yummy's co-owner Richard Reale feels perhaps the greatest loss.

"That tree has been captured in so many photographs over the years," he said. It became a landmark of sorts. But now, he lamented: "The tornado definitely changed the landscape."

All is not lost, however. At least one tree specialist believes, with a little help, the old cedar will survive.

St. Petersburg's John Bolender, an internationally certified arborist, worked on the tree 25 years ago and he said that as long as there's wood and green remaining, there's hope. He also suggested it may need an injection to ensure its longevity.

"I'll do everything I can to preserve that old shade tree," he said. "If I were that tree, I'd want someone to give me a shot."

For some, the tree symbolized something special about Gulfport itself.

"I always felt the tree welcomed people to downtown Gulfport," Yakes said. "I'm sure seeing the storm's aftermath affects some of us deeply. But at the same time it reminds us that we could have fared much worse.

"I'm hopeful Mother Nature lets that tree grow back," he said.

Diane Craig can be reached at dmcraig@hotmail.com.

Gulfport grieves old cedar shade tree after tornado 06/15/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 14, 2013 4:06pm]
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