Written by Dr. Gary J. Keever
Thomas H. Dodd, Jr. Professor of Horticulture, Auburn University
Member of Auburn’s Tree Preservation Committee
The Toomer’s Corner Oak Trees
The managed areas of Auburn University’s campus encompass 600 acres, include 7345 trees of 139 species and have an estimated value of almost $11 million. Two Southern live oaks, located at the northeast corner of Samford Park and reverently known as the Toomer’s oaks, are valued at less than $20,000. That appraisal, however, does not include the physical and emotional roles these trees play in sports victory celebrations (rolling the oaks) and their embodiment of the Auburn Spirit. To the Auburn Family, the two trees are priceless.
Southern live oak, or Quercus virginiana, is an evergreen species native to coastal regions from Virginia to the Florida Keys and west to central Texas. It is the iconic species of the Old South, with its massive low-hanging branches draped in Spanish moss and a life span of 300 years or longer. The live oaks at Toomer’s Corner were planted in 1937, and the earliest image of them was from the 1938 Orange Bowl victory celebration on January 4 after the Tigers defeated the Michigan State Spartans 6-0. The tradition of rolling the trees with toilet paper appears to have begun in the early 1970s and peaked during the undefeated 2010 season, when the celebrations extended throughout Samford Park.
We first learned the iconic Toomer’s oaks had been poisoned with a strong and persistent herbicide in February 2011. Over the following 2+ years the university worked diligently to save the trees, applying activated charcoal to the root zone and an antitranspirant to the foliage, removing contaminated soil and injecting sugar solutions into the trunks twice, but the outlook was never good. In spite of their declining condition, the trees were rolled during the 2011 and 2012 football seasons. The decision was made in early 2013 to remove the Auburn Oaks at Toomer’s Corner but not before a new design for the northeast corner of Samford Park that included Toomer’s Corner was developed with the input of university employees, alumni, the community and the entire Auburn fan base. And not before a “Celebrate the Tradition” block party following the 2013 A–Day Game during which over 50,000 exuberant fans rolled the trees in one massive–display of toilet paper streamers. In stark contrast to this festive occasion, the Auburn Oaks were removed the following Tuesday, an event reported nationally by the media. A world–renowned wood-turner will craft a bowl from the wood which will viewed by thousands in the campus museum; other wood will be marketed and funds used for student scholarships– a fitting final giving of our beloved trees.
New trees will be planted and the tradition of rolling the oaks at Toomer’s Corner will continue. Auburn will be stronger for the experience, and the spirit of the Auburn Family embodied in the tradition surrounding these beloved trees will live on in future celebrations.
The Auburn Oaks
Planted Spring 2016
A memorial celebration for the ages occurred in downtown Auburn April 20, 2013, as 83,000 Auburn University faithful converged on the city’s most famed intersection to “Celebrate the Tradition” with a final rolling of the two legendary oaks at Toomer’s Corner. Words cannot describe the intense emotion that emanated from the intersection of College Street and Magnolia Avenue that cloudless afternoon. Never have I experienced such Auburn Spirit– or my wife such claustrophobia– as when we squeezed through the crowd to fling a few rolls of perfectly good toilet paper up in the air and into the trees. Moving speeches by the likes of Auburn University’s former Athletics Director, David Housel, and the Auburn Family’s formal introduction to new head football coach Gus Malzahn and mountains of toilet paper–it was a jubilant yet bittersweet acknowledgement of two old arboreal friends that had given so much to the Auburn Family.
Three days later, on that same corner, a somber throng of fans and news media watched in silence as the poisoned oaks were taken down. It was
an emotional but necessary step in the rebuilding that was to follow. But even as the trees fell, they kept on giving: The Department of
Horticulture collected cuttings from the base of the Auburn Oaks before they were removed and has rooted over 2,100 clones, young trees
genetically identical to the original trees, that will be marketed beginning in fall 2014 to support academic programs; renowned, third–generation
wood turner Matt Moulthrop has crafted pieces of the wood into beautiful bowls, one of which is prominently displayed in Auburn’s Jule Collins
Smith Museum of Fine Art and others to be given to donors who have done so much to foster education at Auburn; and cross sections from
the base of the South College Street oak will be prominently displayed in Samford Hall and the Student Center, where they can be viewed by tens
of thousands of people for decades to come. All will serve as a continual reminder of a rich tradition embodied in two majestic live oaks.
Remediation and restoration of Toomer’s Corner, Phase I, began in spring of 2014. The tainted soil was removed and rich topsoil and paving
was added in summer of 2014. Two large and rollable oak trees were planted on Valentine’s Day of 2015, and as the new trees spread their
roots and the branches grow accustomed to their new home and then eventually being covered with white tissue, the trees will begin to take
on the symbolism of their legendary predecessors, all will once again be well in the loveliest village of the Plain, and the Auburn Spirit will
be stronger than ever!
*Photo taken after the day of planting, February 15, 2015