TRAFALGAR, Ind. — From the base of the towering sycamore tree, its top branches disappear above the rest of the forest canopy.
Even in a grove of other large trees, the sycamore stands out as a monster. The branches are as large as surrounding trees themselves and spread out to cover seemingly the entire creek valley it sits in.
The tree has earned the distinction as the tallest in Johnson County, a 136-feet-high behemoth.
“It’s almost too hard to tell how big it is just by standing by it. The further back you get, the more it seems to grow,” said Pamela Henthorn, a Trafalgar resident whose family owns the tree.
In remote corners of Johnson County, massive trees stretch into the forest canopy. Some are hundreds of years old, with branches that stretch 80 feet out and trunks that require two people to reach all the way around. These trees have been recognized by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources as the largest of their species in the state, in an attempt to preserve and protect them.
Four of the trees are located in or around Johnson County.
Judging the champion trees falls to the DNR and its forestry division. The winners are published in a guide, the Indiana Big Tree Register, which comes out every five years and records the biggest in species such as cottonwood, hawthorn and maple.
The trees are judged on a point system that takes into account height, distance around the trunk, and the spread of its crown from one edge of its branches to the other.
Only native species are included in the count. Since “large” varies with the species, the trees come in a variety of sizes. The tallest tree in Indiana, a bitternut hickory in Perry County, measures 154 feet, while a bigtooth aspen on Greenwood resident David Cline’s property is the champion at 83 feet.
“Large trees have always held a particular fascination for humans; and under some of the largest trees, much of our history has taken place,” state forester John Seifert said.
The champion white pine on Mark Dixon’s Nineveh property has been a part of his family for more than 30 years.
His children have spent hours on the tire swing hanging from its lowest branch, and their dogs have chased squirrels, raccoons and other animals up into the safety of its branches.
When they bought the home in 1980, the previous owner told Dixon the tree had been planted by his grandfather. They estimated it was at least 150 years old.
Since it was featured in the Big Tree Register, Dixon has had unannounced visitors come up his driveway.
“Quite a few people — I call them ‘tree-huggers’ — come out to see it themselves. They get really excited about it and get pictures,” he said.
Not all of the trees are located in plain view and accessible by the public, though.
The champion chestnut oak, a 139-feet-high tree in Bartholomew County, is located deep in the training grounds of Camp Atterbury. The oak was discovered during the military’s property inventory.
Camp surveyors reported a huge tree in a far corner of the property to forester Ryan Woods, who went out in search of it. Driving along the dirt roads and hiking trails in the mostly deserted area, he came up over a hill and immediately spotted it.
“Once you look at it, it’s clear right away that you’re seeing something special. It stands out quite a bit,” Woods said.
Many times, the trees become part of local history and heritage.
Since they bought their Trafalgar home 15 years ago, Kris and Pamela Henthorn have heard stories and personal history about the towering sycamore tree on their property.
Local legend says that native American tribes would gather near its partially hollow base for shelter. The opening is big enough to fit four or five people, standing up comfortably.
Photos from around 1900 show local residents posing in front of it. Nieces and nephews, as well as neighboring kids, have found it to be a perfect tree fort. The family has cut a path to it, and visitors often feel the need to get their photos taken in front of it.
“We’re outdoors kind of people, so the fact that we had a champion tree means a lot to us,” Pamela Henthorn said.