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CAMPHOR TREE: A LIVING MONUMENT // Deep roots in history

Published Dec. 26, 1999|Updated Jul. 6, 2006

In 1912, Mollie Sparlin Ellas planted a twig of a camphor tree. It has grown and been spared the injuries that development brought. Now it is a tree of memories.

Most monuments to local pioneers are in cemeteries. But Mollie Sparlin Ellas left herself a monument, a camphor tree, that may be the biggest thing along Hanna Road.

The tree, which Ellas planted in 1912, has a limb span its current owner estimates at 110 feet or more. Its trunk has the breadth of a hot tub. Its limbs, many sporting sideburns of small, delicate ferns, reach across a lawn and both lanes of Hanna.

In recent years, it has sported Christmas lights on the lowest, stoutest limbs.

"It looked like a giant octopus out there," said Phil Draughon, who, with his wife Roberta, bought the land, home and camphor tree from Ellas' descendants four years ago.

The woman it memorializes was noted for more than her tree.

Born in Seneca, Mo. in the 1860s, she moved to Snake River, Wyo., with her first husband, Van Dorn "Dorney" Sparlin. They ran a big ranch and a boarding house, and Mollie was considered the best cook in town, recalls Ellas' granddaughter, Rosanna Gernhardt.

She was something of a Wyoming socialite.

"She even had her ears pierced as a young girl," said Gernhardt, who, at 79, is retired in Carrollwood. "Can you imagine that?"

Dorney Sparlin died around 1890, six years after the birth of the couple's son, Guy. Mollie Sparlin later married Harry Ellas. In 1910, the Ellases and Guy Sparlin and his wife moved to Lutz, where they had bought 40 acres off Hanna Road in response to a newspaper advertisement placed by the Florida Land Bank.

"They were tired of the snow," said Gernhardt. "It was below zero all of the winter."

In Lutz, they ripped out palmettos and planted groves.

"They planted everything imaginable as long as it was citrus," Gernhardt said.

Mollie Ellas planted palms, crepe myrtles, roses and the camphor tree.

Gernhardt said her grandmother described the tree as only about waist high when she planted it.

"She always said it was like a twig," Gernhardt said.

Camphors had been imported to Florida from China, Taiwan and Japan in 1875 by entrepreneurs who hoped to start a domestic trade in camphor oil. The industry fizzled, but early Floridians liked the trees. As evergreens, camphors shed their leaves gradually year-round, remaining shadier during the winter than live oaks, the kings of shade. And the alien camphor grows faster than the native live oak.

Ellas' camphor tree soon had roots stretching into the edge of the family's citrus groves. Powdered fertilizer the family would disperse under the citrus trees every four months also fertilized the young camphor, Gernhardt said. In 30 years, the tree was taller than the Ellas' two-story house.

"As kids, we used to climb it all the time," said Raymond Sparlin, Ellas' 82-year-old grandson. "We used to go up in the tree and climb off on the limbs and onto the roof of the house."

Eventually, people began to treat the camphor reverently.

Tampa Electric Company moved its lines to extra-tall poles rather than hack out camphor limbs that blocked them, Sparlin said.

People began stopping to take photos. Those included a carload of University of Florida horticulturists who had heard about the tree and sought it out years ago en route to a conference, said one of them, Bob Black, professor of environmental horticulture.

"I've got slides," he said.

A decade ago, Maniscalco Elementary School opened in the neighborhood. Parents began demanding sidewalks. That made Sparlin's wife Kathleen nervous that the camphor tree might be jeopardized by sidewalk plans.

So Sparlin did something he was considering anyway. He laid a small column of bricks in front of the tree and mounted a plaque on it. It says:

HISTORICAL PLAQUE

CAMPHOR TREE

PLANTED IN 1912 BY

MOLLIE SPARLIN ELLAS

GRANDMOTHER TO RAYMOND SPARLIN

"It was just something for her memory," Sparlin said.

Two years ago, a sidewalk was built on the opposite side of Hanna.

The Draughons are planning soon to replace their remaining citrus trees with a small subdivision. But Phil Draughon said they don't plan to move, and they don't plan to harm the camphor tree.

"My little 2{-year-old grandson, we take him out there and set him up on one of the lower limbs," Draughon said. "He loves to climb on that tree."

To reach Bill Coats call 226-3469, or e-mail him at coats@spttmes.com.

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