A single cottonwood tree, gone bright yellow in the season, its leaves and branches framing a deep blue sky, looms above the gently waving prairie grass trimmed in muted shades of beige and rust.

The scene is timeless both in reality and symbolically. The cottonwood tree is woven into the fabric of our lives, our history and better yet, our memories.

Whether you played in a schoolyard lined with them like sentries, or as a youth you laid in your bed on a summer night and listened to rustle of their leaves in the breeze through an open window, for most of us the cottonwood trees serve as reminder of the distant past.

And so it is with our country.

cowgirl sass Cottonwood

In 1718, Franciscan monks and Indian converts built San Antonio de Valero, later to be named the “Alamo,” the Spanish word for cottonwood, and referring to the stand of cottonwoods that line the nearby river.

Lewis and Clark stopped along the Yellowstone River on their return trip in the summer of 1806, “to make two canoes” out of cottonwood trees. A reference in their journal to the towering cottonwoods later gave name to the town of Big Timber, Montana.

Historically, travelers making their way across the vast and deserted plains scanned the horizon for the sight of cottonwoods, indicating a water source and possibly civilization.

The virgin forest of cottonwoods that once formed a rounded grove, the Bosque Redondo, was cut in the 1860s to build Fort Sumner, New Mexico. They served as fuel for the fires for hundreds of soldiers and civilians who lived at the fort, as well as the 9,000 nomadic Native Americans who were forced to live on the surrounding reservation.

In three years, the groves were completely harvested causing a fuel shortage and severe soil erosion in the surrounding farm grounds. A year later the fort commander ordered 5,000 trees to be planted to line the ditch banks and all bordering roadways.

America has a dozen or so towns named after the tree including Cottonwood, Arizona, a town birthed in 1874 and famous for bootlegging, feeding the miners and later, filming movies.

New Mexico had at least 12 towns named Cottonwood, none of which exist today. Alamogordo, was named for its “fat cottonwood trees” that grow in Cottonwood Park near the railroad. Southern Pacific Railroad had those very trees brought from El Paso by wagon in 1901 to create a rest stop for passengers.
Southeast of Abilene is Cottonwood, Texas, founded about 1875 by J.W. Love, who didn’t think his name lent itself to town-naming, so the local abundance of cottonwood trees directed a second choice.

A reported rash of shootings with fatal results during the town’s embryonic period provided for a brief but colorful history. However, Cottonwood, Texas came only close to a real claim to fame in the Wild West. The Newton Brothers, train and bank robbers from Uvalde, Texas, used to live near Cottonwood.

In 1937, Kansas officials adopted the cottonwood at the official state tree, most of which were planted by early pioneers.

My own history with cottonwoods is that of those friendly giants in our yard on the ranch in Colorado as well as the endless number of them lining miles of creek banks and hay meadows.

In the fall, as children we played in the leaves, and in the spring, we endured the beaded strings of “cotton” that brought a season of sneezing. That perhaps was offset by the right-of-passage in learning how to fold a cottonwood leaf and make a whistle.

They provided shade in the summer, wore a tire swing in perpetual motion, endured makeshift ladder rungs nailed to a trunk, and gave way to endless hours for countless years of kids climbing up, down and around. They canopied a magical playground limited only by our imaginations as we built forts and had secret hideouts in the groves of the living as well as the dead trees.

As a teen, my daydreams were brought to life when I became Velvet Brown, the girl who rode her horse to victory in the Grand National steeplechase. I would select a path through the fallen trees that allowed my horse to gather enough speed and momentum to jump over the larger deadfall. I soared in my dreams as I soared in the saddle.

I still love to lean against the trunk of a grand old cottonwood, slide my back down the rough bark to sit very still and quiet on the ground. I know the secrets of the past are whispered in the rustle of the leaves.

Julie can be reached for comment at jcarternm@gmail.com.