Danny Henley, Courier-Post journalist for nearly 30 years, wrote a story about the catalpa tree in Hannibal's Robinson Cemetery. It was published in the Hannibal Courier-Post on Feb. 1, 2012. Following is an excerpt from that story.
Many people enjoy tracing their family roots. In the case of Lillian Jones of Hannibal, her family's roots are linked to a state champion tree that now stands tall in Hannibal.
Jones says that the catalpa tree that stands in Robinson Cemetery, which recently regained the crown for its species in Missouri, was planted over a century ago by a family member.
Credit for planting the tree goes to Lita McElroy Washington, who was the sister of Jones' father, Charles Henry McElroy.
"She was my aunt," said Jones, who recalls hearing her parents discuss Washington planting the tree in the cemetery, which dates back to 1921 when it was established by Albert L. Robinson. "She was quite a young person when she planted it. I don't know her age at the time."
Washington had good intentions when she planted the sapling catalpa in the center of the family's cemetery plot, according to Jones.
"It was because her mother and father, which would have been my grandmother and grandfather, were buried there. She told them (Jones' parents) she didn't like them laying out there in that hot sun," said Jones.
While family history regarding the tree does not include a year the tree was planted, Jones says it has been casting a shadow in the cemetery for at least a century.
"My mom was over 100 when she died, so I would say the tree is a good 120 years and that's an estimate. Maybe 125 years," she said.
Jones doubts her aunt sought special permission to plant the tree.
"It was our family plot, so you didn't have to get permission," she said. "Black folks were buried close together in those days. About all they had was each other."
The family plot beneath the catalpa includes the graves of Jones' paternal grandparents, her mother and father, a half-sister and some nieces and nephews. Also buried beneath the old tree's branches is the woman who planted it.
"Aunt Lita and her husband are up there," said Jones, explaining that the exact site where her aunt is buried has been lost to time. "All they had at that time was a little tin looking thing that stood up on a peg and had their names. It finally washed off I guess the grass cutters got rid of them. That's why I put a (head)stone up there for my mom and dad, so I would know exactly where they were."
The tree in the Robinson Cemetery was not the only catalpa that Washington planted.
"When she got married she put one (catalpa tree) at her house over on 1704 Wardlaw St. It's gone. I guess they cut it down," said Jones.
According to Jones, her aunt would not tolerate youngsters passing by and pulling pods from the tree's branches.
"Kids would smoke (bean pods) as cigarettes. If she would see them pulling those cigars (pods) off of that tree at her house, boy she would swat them because you could do that in those days," said Jones.