Books: Evelyn Copeland (Series), Craft: Research, Research: Iowa History

Famous Iowa Trees

Two of my favorite trees are the burr oak and the cottonwood. I played under a leaning, rickety, crooked-limbed burr oak filled with all sorts of imaginings as a ten year old. While I stayed with my grandfather on his farm, he told me stories of how the giant cotton wood which loomed directly east of the house helped make the family butchering easier.

Elm Farm (Dec 1965)
Elm Farm, 1965 — Courtesy of Lisa Taber

Both tree species had a strong influence in altering the landscape of the native prairie. The Timber and Culture Act of 1873, granted 160 acres of public land to a claimant as long as forty acres of it were planted in trees. With any law, abuses mounted, amendments were added in 1874, 1878, and it was repealed in 1891.

Tree in the Middle of the Road, 2020; Courtesy of Lisa Taber

Burr oaks and cottonwoods are native species found along rivers, streams, or in groves out in the middle of the nowhere. They were favorites of the pioneers because of their hardiness, height, girth, and wonderful buffers against the harsh prairie. The female cottonwood often gets a bad rap and many cities have banned their planting. According to Rick Hall, professor of Natural Resource Ecology and Management the wispy white seeds produced in late June early July are in fact similar to the cotton plant, “but much shorter fibers and much smaller aggregation around each seed than the cotton plant has” (Iowa Radio).

Volunteers such as Mark Rouw have been on a mission since the 1970s to map Iowa’s largest, oldest, and biggest trees (“Meet Iowa’s Big-Tree Hunter”). If you feel a local tree deserves to be cherished for future generations, you may nominate it to Iowa DNR’s “Big Tree Program”. Nomination forms may be found here.

If you’re looking for a quiet, scenic tour of two of Iowa’s famous trees, you can’t beat Tree in the Middle of the Road or The Plow in the Oak.


Off Interstate 80 and up and down steep minimum maintenance roads, and at the convergence of four intersections, sits a giant cotton wood some 100 feet in height and 20 feet in diameter.

Tree in the Middle of the Road 2020; Courtesy of Lisa Taber

According to local legend, the tree was planted in the 1860s. Two brothers were surveying the land. One of them had used a cottonwood sapling as a walking stick. Once they reached the invisible boundaries between Cass and Auburn counties they sharpened the sapling and stuck it into the ground to serve as a marker. The tree sprouted and so it remains.


Roughly thirteen miles away sits another famous tree. Alongside Hwy 71 in a small park is The Plow in the Oak.

Tree Near Exira Iowa 1934
Shari Beymer,  “Tree Near Exira, Iowa, 1934.” Facebook. 6 June 2018. Accessed: 16 August 2020.

Local legend has it a farmer upon hearing of the Civil War, set his plow against an oak tree, joined the Union never to return. Paul Walther, the agriculturist for Audubon County, said there could be some truth to the legend as the oak does predate the Civil War (Klingaman). An image from Shari Beymer on Facebook from 2018, shows much more of the plow in 1934. By 2020 the oak has pretty much swallowed up the plow.

Courtesy of Lisa Taber 2020

If you feel like you want to take a scenic drive to one or both of these two famous Iowa trees, you won’t be disappointed.


  • Tree in the Middle of the Road: Tree in the Road, 2401-2449 350th St, Brayton, IA 50042
  • Plow in the Oak: Plow in the Oak Park, Exira, IA 50076

Map of the Two


Beymer, Shari. “Tree Near Exira, Iowa, 1934.” Facebook. 6 June 2018. Accessed: 16 August 2020.
Big Tree Program.” Iowa Department of Natural Resources. 2020. Accessed: 08 August 2020.
Bur Oak.” Extension and Outreach. Iowa State University. 2020. Accessed: 16 August 2020.
Butler, Bill. “Cottonwood Tree.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 27 May 1990, 5B. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Cottonwoods, Maples ‘Overproducing’ Seeds This Spring.” Radio Iowa. 2 June 2008. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Goetz, Katheryn R. “Land For Trees: The Timber Culture Act of 1873.” MinnPost. 4 June 2013. Accessed: 14 August 2020.
Ise, John. “The Early History of the United States Forest Policy.” Ames Forester, Vol 3, Article 5, 1915. Accessed: 14 August 2020.
James, Bob. “Iowa Has Two Historic and Unique Trees, Just Miles Apart.” 98.1 K.H.A.K. 10 January 2019. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Klingaman, Mike. “Iowa Harbors Two Legendary Trees.” The Baltimore Evening Sun Online. 4 October 1990. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Kutzi, Marilyn. “The Secrets of the Cottonwood Tree.” Clinton Herald Online. 24 September 2016. Accessed: 16 August 2020.
Meet Iowa’s Big-Tree Hunter.” The Gazette Online. 01 July 2018. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Raffensperger, Gene. “Motorists Yield for Fabled Tree.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 27 May 1990, 1B & 5B. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Tree in the Middle of the Road to Plow in the Oak Park“. Google Maps. 2020. Accessed: 16 August 2020.
Tree in the Middle of the Road.” Travel Iowa. 2020. Accessed: 07 August 2020.
Young, Aaron. “This Iowa Road Has a Massive Tree Growing in the Middle of It.” Des Moines Register Online. 14 December 2016. Accessed: 07 August 2020.

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