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'It's a spiritual connection': Mount Hope Tree much more than bark and branches

'It's a spiritual connection': Mount Hope Tree much more than bark and branches

TOWN OF MOUNT HOPE, Wis. - There are millions of trees across Wisconsin, so to tell the story of just one seems a little crazy. However, for thousands of people, a white elm tree in Grant County is so much more than just roots and leaves.

The Mount Hope Tree has been described as a beautiful beacon, a legendary landmark and a stoic symbol.

Kelly Engsberg lives in Madison, but passes by the icon every time she goes to see her mom in Prairie du Chien.

"We'll snap a picture of it, and send it quick and then she knows were about 20 to 25 minutes from being home,” Engsberg explained.

The town of Mount Hope has fewer than 200 people living there. The “celebrity” tree on the side of U.S. 18 has put the town on the map.

Dick Lambert runs the only bar and restaurant in town, Home-A-Gins. It’s named for his life's journey out of, and then back to, Mount Hope. The stately elm has been standing since he was a kid.

“When we were in school, we had to run, and they would send us to the Mount Hope Tree and the ball diamond which is no longer there,” Lambert recollected. “That was kind of our goal, to run to the Mount Hope Tree.

“There isn't much to Mount Hope but this tree, but that's what we got,” Lambert added.

No one really knows where the Mount Hope Tree came from. Local legend says that it was part of the Beautify America campaign started by Lady Bird Johnson in the 1960s. Regardless of where the decades-old-tree originated, it holds a special significance in the hearts and minds of everyone who passes by.

For Engsberg, the tree has kind of brought her family closer together. It's the number one topic of conversation at reunions and get-togethers. She makes sure to wave to the Mount Hope Tree every time she sees it. 

“It's like an old friend that you really love seeing when you run into them,” Engsberg said. “No matter where that may be, you always know they are going to be right there.”

Believe it or not, Engsberg isn't alone. The Mount Hope Tree has its own Facebook page, boasting almost 3,000 admirers. The page is a place for fans to show off the photos and paintings they have of the illustrious elm. Over the years, the tree's popularity has branched out far beyond southwest Wisconsin.

“Guys from 1,000 miles away are like, ‘Where's that Mount Hope Tree?’” Lambert claimed.

“It's quite a symbol. I’m glad we got it, hope it stays forever but I don't know,” Lambert added.

Sadly, you're running out of time to see this symbol for yourself.  

The tree has faced hardships seemingly since the start, dealing with inadequate soil conditions, years of exposure to herbicide from nearby fields and a less-than-ideal location. 

And, a few years ago, a sleepy driver accidentally took out a chunk of its trunk.

“There was a guy coming from Utah going to Milwaukee,” Lambert explained. “He ran off the road and he hit the tree. I mean he had 800 miles to miss the tree, but he hit it.”

The final nail in the coffin for the Mount Hope Tree is possible Dutch elm disease.

Gary Sprague has been taking care of trees across Grant County for more than 30 years. Along with his brother, he's doing everything he can to try and save the staple of southwest Wisconsin.

However, especially if Dutch elm disease is the diagnosis, there's not much that can be done.

“If the Mount Hope Tree does have Dutch elm disease, it will most likely be dead by the end of the year,” Sprague surmised. “But, it’s tough to say.”

For fans of the tree like Engsberg, that forecast is devastating.

“To have to cruise past it and not see it will kind of feel like I've lost a friend or a loved one," Engsberg said.

For now, against all odds, this guardian of Grant County is still standing.

Maybe that's why so many people connect with the tree. Through life's ups and downs, a lonely tree that was never supposed to be, perseveres. 

It continues to inspire all who pass by to find the beauty in the simple things, to never give up hope and to keep on going.

“It's kind of gotten beat up, and it's still hanging out, and it's still watching over southwestern Wisconsin's rolling hills. I think that's cool,” Engsberg said.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation owns the stretch of land on which the tree stands. They say they won't touch the tree unless it becomes a traffic hazard.

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