The Memorial Stadium oak grove standoff at UC is a dangerous and dramatic business, but tree sitting has a more prosaic origin. In the summer of 1930, when “endurance marathons” were the rage, schoolboys and girls across the country became tree sitters for glory and prizes and a chance to get their picture in the paper.
In the first summer of the Great Depression, bicycle marathons, pole sitting, even mustache contests were popular diversions. Very young kids across the nation took up the challenge, climbed up high and built some great tree-houses. Newspapers and radio stations increased readership and announced prizes; bicycles, a wristwatch, savings bonds, a job. Local merchants supplied shoes and radios and tacked advertisements to the tree trunks and fences. Money boxes nailed to the trees jingled with coins dropped by the growing crowds. Feature stories followed: twins sitting, a mother of three, a boy scout and even a housewife with a bathing tub were going for the record in neighborhood trees. The story exploded; children across America took to the trees.
From Jersey to Georgia, Bremerton to Santa Barbara, the “tree sitting epidemic” spread. Sitters went on radio, took baths and had haircuts and doctor’s visits aloft. Radio stations updated hourly and interviewed 4-year-olds on the resupply teams. To the consternation of parents and property owners, the crowds increased by the week.
Twelve-year-old E. B. Landre of 5866 Shafter Ave., Oakland (gone beneath Highway 24) joined the challenge, completing 360 hours as Oakland’s “Human Apple” in his mother’s apple tree, inspiring a dozen imitators across the East Bay. Neighbors thronged to the Shafter Avenue house, and his mother was happy to know where her son was for once. Before alighting to join child star Billy Page on the NBC radio network, “Eebee” (his nickname in the papers) was assured of his standing, for the moment, as Bay Area champion. He then got ready for a new school year.
Some writers recommended cutting all trees. Will Rogers suggested they climb the giant trees in Yosemite.
One kid relocated to a new tree and was carried on a severed branch. Another was attacked with slingshots and gave up, one lit his tent on fire, others were chased from the trees by lightning, summer heat and rain. One was visited by a skunk, and some got homesick, like Lisa Simpson.
A Florida newsmen’s association passed a resolution against wasting more ink on tree sitters unless and until they fall and break their necks, with a view toward protecting children from reverting to their “ape-like tendencies.” The Bremerton tree sit lasted 518 hours, a Santa Rosa youth went 1,305 and one in southern California went 1,320 hours.
A year later, consensus seems to support Leslie “Rhubarb” Davis’ record of 107 days in Gibson City, Ill. When asked why he did it, Rhubarb replied, “I didn’t have to work the whole time I was up there.”
As the publicity spread, law-and-order citizens, juvenile courts, child welfare societies and police combined forces to end the nonsense. Cities declared public parks off-limits. A few sheriffs climbed ladders and grabbed kids by the belt or around the neck.
In late August, coverage ended abruptly when four hours shy of his goal of 500, 16-year-old Nelson McIntosh of Lexington, Ken., fell to his death while pulling up his lunch. Competitors quickly descended and requested Nelson be declared state champion. The fun quickly bled from the game. Before long, “tree sitting” and the mara-thon craze become fodder for propagandists as proof America had gone soft.
There is more. In Woodstock, Virginia, in 1935, Mrs. Lorraine F. Brown, denying she had a pistol or a pitchfork in hand, perched among the branches of her maple tree and secured a court injunction to save the tree in front of her house from street widening. In 1937, a London play called Climbing satirized a youth who climbed a tree as the first step in flying. In 1939, Mr. Bink sat in a tree in the movie On Borrowed Time. A one-act play called Sittin’, about a Guinness World’s Record, played at the Ensemble Studio Theater in 1980. (By the way, the Guinness website does not cover tree sitting). My favorite tree sitter is the uncle in Fellini’s 1973 film Amarcord.
Berkeley’s own Malvina Reynolds wrote a song after housewife Lois Knill in 1965 tried to stop the destruction of a row of pines on adjacent property in her wealthy Harbor Point subdivision on Tiburon. Mrs. Knill did not exactly sit in a tree, she took up residence on top of a stump, threatened the developer, whom she called a pig, talking about a .44. Originally titled, “The Lady and the Tree,” Reynolds’ song tells the story of a woman who “cried and cursed for the murder of a tree.”
Tree sitting has a single purpose now, and tree defense rages across the planet; there have been deaths, and every loss is permanent. But, take heart: young people not much older than Eebee are still climbing trees. As witnesses to the drama at Memorial Stadium, take a moment to ponder the young folk of 1930, children my father’s age, who jumped at the chance to spend some warm summer nights in a tree.