For as long as there has been the town of Canby, there has been the Philander Lee Tree. Until now.
The stately white oak that was planted by the town’s founding family — and had proudly shaded the Oregon and California rail line and, later, Highway 99E for 154 years was removed Tuesday due to a growing split in the tree’s trunk that concerned the property’s owners and city officials.
City planning and historical preservation officials confirmed Tuesday that the owners had notified and consulted them before hiring an arborist to delimb and remove the mighty oak. Both the tree’s height and crown spread were estimated at more than 100 feet.
“The property owners did their due diligence,” Canby Planning Manager Ryan Potter told the Current. “Obviously, it has a lot of historical value, and they wanted to make sure everything was done in the best way possible.
Planning staff later visited the site with a representative from the Canby Historical Society and confirmed the tree was potentially dangerous.
“It has several trunks, and they’re cracking down the middle, which was going to make it a hazard,” Potter said, also noting the tree’s proximity to Package Containers Inc., which owns the tree and the property on which it sat, Austen’s Body Shop and the railroad.
The tree was planted by Philander Lee in 1869, the year before he would file the original town plat for Canby, named after General Edward Richard Sprigg Canby, a prominent Union Army hero from the Civil War.
It was planted at the site of the family’s third home, which was built by O&C Rail workers. When Lee died in 1887, his son Albert lived there. The home and the tree remained in the Lee family until 1967, when the property was sold to Package Containers by the last Lee resident, Ora Lee Cattley, Philander’s granddaughter.
The tree has been a part of many a local childhood for decades, as Canby’s elementary schools brought busloads of students each year to visit the site and learn about Canby’s pioneer history. It was believed to be one of the oldest and tallest in the city.
Tim Austen, owner of the neighboring auto body shop and son of Austen’s founder Wayne Austen, practically grew up in the shade of the massive oak and lamented the end of an era.
“It’s sad to see the tree go away,” he said. “It’s been fun to see the kids come over for lunch with the classes around this time of year. It’s been a staple of the community since before my time! I understand the tree needed to come down due to its center starting to split.
“But it will be missed. Already seems kind of strange not seeing it out there.”
The tree was inducted into the Oregon Travel Information Council’s Heritage Tree Program in 2016 with a formal ceremony hosting local and state dignitaries, along with three generations of Lee descendants.
The program, however, does not include any formal protections for the trees on its list, Palmer confirmed.
Heritage and Community Assets Manager Beth Dehn told the Current the property owners had also contacted the Oregon Travel Information Council, and the tree has been removed from the current listing of heritage trees.
Palmer said the plaque that once noted the oak’s inclusion on the heritage list has been donated to the collection of the Canby Historical Society, which hopes to create a display honoring the tree and its place in Canby history.
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