By Tom Uhlenbrock
Missouri State Parks
EAST PRAIRIE, Mo. – The welcome sign is back up at Big Oak Tree State Park in the far southeast corner of Missouri.
The sign was toppled in early May when the Army Corps of Engineers blew holes in a levee and let the overflowing Mississippi rush into the New Madrid Floodway. Big Oak Tree, and the nearby Towosahgy State Historic Site, are within the 130,000-acre floodway.
Floodwaters reached 16 feet deep at the park’s visitor center.
Big Oak Tree was closed temporarily, but has re-opened.
Park employees spent the summer removing debris washed in by floodwaters and making other repairs, including putting up a new welcome sign.
“The park fared really well, as far as the bottomland forest ecosystem is concerned,” said Chris Crabtree, the natural resource steward at the park. “We did have some tree die-off, and lost some animals, but that would have happened somewhat on a regular basis prior to the levee system. The main resource is intact, luckily.”
The centerpiece of the park is a three-quarter-mile walkway built of steel grating to withstand high water. The walkway, the main public use area and the Bottomland Trail are open, although some areas of the park remain closed.
A hike along the walkway revealed that great egrets have returned to their roosts in the snags, warblers are in the tree canopy and the forest floor bears the tracks of raccoons, deer and other animals.
Crabtree had feared the loss of the park’s swamp rabbits, which are larger than your average backyard bunny, but reports two have been spotted in the park.
“Animal populations will take time to rebound,” he said.
Crabtree and two full-time park maintenance workers, Chadd Thomas and Jeff Williamson, were aided in the cleanup by an inmate crew of six workers from Trails of Tears State Park, two interns from Southeast Missouri State University and seven employees of the Workforce Investment Board of Southeast Missouri.
“The flood debris included at least eight big tanks, dozens of tires, road signs and three sheds, one of ours and two that washed in from somewhere else,” Crabtree said. “You could have built a shotgun shack out of everything we found.”
While the flood damaged farm homes and buildings within the floodway, Crabtree said many of the farmers were able to get in a crop. “Some of the beans inside the spillway looked better than what’s growing outside,” he said.
The park’s playground has been restored, with a new layer of mulch. The visitor center will remain closed and may be replaced because the current small facility is on stilts with a stairway not accessible to the disabled.
The visitor center contains a cross-section of the giant bur oak that inspired creation of the park. The display was not damaged by the floodwaters.
Weathering the floods
The park is an oasis of tall trees surrounded by farm fields, and for a time in the 1960s was home to some 20 state or national champion trees. Many of those have died, but the park now claims the national champion pumpkin ash, the state champion persimmon and the state co-champ bald cypress.
The big bald cypress is not currently marked on the boardwalk, and Crabtree said he hopes to create signage directing visitors to the giant tree.
“It’s hard to estimate it’s age,” Crabtree said. “But you can bet it’s been home to ivory-billed woodpeckers and Carolina parakeets.”
The Carolina parakeet is now extinct, and the ivory-billed believed to be, but Crabtree noted that John James Audubon traveled through the area in November of 1820: “He wrote about nothing but hearing the ivory-billed woodpeckers calling in the forests all along the way.”
Those forests are long gone. By demand of local residents anxious to save a piece of their natural heritage, the 1,023 acres of Big Oak Tree State Park were preserved in 1937 as one of the state’s last remnants of the bottomland forests that lined the Mississippi River Valley.
Ironically, 1937 also was the last year that the Corps inundated the floodway. The forest of Big Oak Tree State Park survived that manmade flood, and appears to have weathered another.
A spot for star-gazing
The scene was the same a few miles away at the Towosahgy State Historic Site, which sits along a gravel road winding back through the farm fields.
Debris has been removed, and a mowed path leads to the seven mounds, which survived the flooding intact.
Towosahgy is an Osage word for “old village,” and the site was a thriving community between about A.D. 800 to 1400. It is the only Mississippian Culture site preserved by the state; the majority of mounds in the floodplain have been bulldozed for agriculture.
“This was a fortified village with a wood wall on three sides and a moat,” Crabtree said. “An estimated 250 to 300 dwellings were within the village. The tallest mound is called Temple Mound because it was used in ceremonies to elevate the leader above everybody else.”
Only the two tallest mounds were above the floodwaters, and they provided a dry haven for animals. In an unlikely gathering of predators and prey, dozens of turkey and deer sought refuge on the mounds, along with several coyote and what may have been two bobcat cubs.
The site has re-opened and will hold a free event from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sept. 24. The public is invited to join staff atop the highest mound to view the blanket of stars from the same vantage point as Native Americans did more than 1,000 years ago.
For more information, call 573-748-5340.