The Senator

In January 2012, a fire resulting from a deliberate and thoughtless act of arson tragically destroyed the oldest existing tourist attraction in Central Florida. The cypress tree known as “The Senator” and often referred to simply as the “Big Tree” certainly predated Walt Disney World and other current attractions. The Senator was located in Big Tree Park in Seminole County’s Spring Hammock Preserve, a small preserve in Longwood between Sanford and Orlando. Its younger companion, Lady Liberty, still stands nearby. As the elder of the two, the Senator was thought to have been on the site for over 3,500 years.

“Lady Liberty” is younger and probably grew when Jesus walked the Earth. For generations, tourists and locals enjoyed the marvel of two trees of this age and size still growing in 21st-century Florida.

This area of Seminole County was once thick with bay, sweet gum, live oaks, longleaf yellow pines, and cypress hammocks scattered with low swampland. The land changed little with the yearly progression of seasons. As described in 1881 by Maryland lawyer George W. Newell, writing for the Baltimore Sun from Clifton Springs, a steamboat landing on the south shore of Lake Jessup: the land had altered little since coastal tribes followed the meandering St. Johns River inland. Thousands of years ago these tribes used the towering bald cypress to find their way to trading grounds. Shorn of its top by a long ago storm, the majestic tree was visible from the river eight miles away. In a version of modern day landfills, the first indigenous settlers built mounds or middens, piling sand, shells, and debris to create higher ground as they migrated inland in summer to hunt and trade. Winters for these ancient people were spent along the coast. Middens were additionally used for stilt homes or signal points between Lake Monroe and the interior settlements. (Some historians believe that the nearby Seminole County Museum sitting on just such a rise may be located on an ancient midden.)

During the Seminole wars in the mid-1800s, soldiers from nearby forts at Maitland, Harney, and Monroe searched for Seminoles throughout the region. Still, much of the territory remained a remote wilderness until after the Civil War. Only then did settlement of the areas between Orlando and Sanford begin. A surveyor, J.O. Fries, traveled the area in 1871 and noted a single lone house along the road from Sanford to Orlando. He saw one small store in Maitland.

In more recent times, the American Forestry Association in 1946 estimated that The Senator was just a seedling when Columbus set sail for what he hoped would be a short route to India. It easily predated occupation by Seminoles, the Spanish, the English, and the United States. In 1929, President Calvin Coolidge traveled to the area to stand dwarfed in its shade and praise it as a national treasure, one of the nation’s oldest and largest trees.

In 1927, Coolidge’s visit was initiated when the Big Tree Park site was donated to Seminole County after the death of its owner, State Senator M.O. Overstreet. The Overstreet family, starting with Ben J. Overstreet, owner of the Overstreet Turpentine Co., were major landowners during the lumber and turpentine era. The donation from Senator Overstreet clearly led to the big cypress’s often-used nickname, The Senator.

In 2013, a clone, genetically the same as the Big Tree, was installed at a renovated Big Tree Park. The clone had grown since the 1990s when an orchard of seven Big Tree cuttings was planted in north Florida. Fittingly, the clone has been named “The Phoenix” after the mythical bird that rises from the ashes. Another clone now grows at Reiter Park, called The Sentator II.

Two sections of the original tree, one showing the blackened inside and the other the bark, are displayed at the Museum of Seminole County History. Another section can be found at the Historic Civic Center in Longwood.

Unknowing of the Senator’s eventual tragic fate, a visitor once wrote, “Reluctantly you leave the big tree’s stately presence. But you know that any time you yearn for a quick escape and serenity, The Senator will still be waiting.”

From: “Footprints” book