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Cypress trees

Gift of Cypress Grove Keeps on Giving

Cypress Grove offers many benefits to the small town of Charleston, Tenn.

July 1, 2021 — At first glance they seem like sentries rising from the water, watching over the small town of Charleston, Tenn. Towering to heights upward of 60 feet, they are stunning, environmental stewards that host wildlife, filter pollution from the river, and provide carbon sequestration. But 50 years ago when the bald cypress trees were planted, these benefits were not their purpose. At the time, TVA and employee Leon Bates, who helped plant the trees, were focused on one thing: mosquito control.

“Charleston is on the Hiwassee River. The swampy area was created by slow moving water flow in the embayment,” Bates explained. Mosquitoes flourish in grasses and shrubs that allow eggs to hatch and emerge. TVA’s original approach was to mow the area each fall after it had dried out. But in the early 70s, Bates proposed that bald cypress trees would shade out the shrubs and grasses where the mosquitoes flourished.

 “Cypress trees thrive in wetlands, and have an extensive root system, including the knees that can be seen in this grove. A cypress tree might break in a high wind, but it won’t topple over,” Bates said.

The trees grew quickly and soon shaded out the low-growing vegetation - problem solved. But that’s just the beginning of the story.

The cypress trees quietly continued their environmental work, but slowly, the small, four-acre grove was growing into a stunning landmark.

Fast forward to 2006. That’s when the community began working on a Cherokee heritage project, according to Melissa Woody, of the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce. The project would interpret Native American stories, such as the robust Cherokee community that thrived in the present-day communities of Charleston and Calhoun, just across the river. Eventually, the U.S. Government would forcibly remove the Cherokee, Muscogee and other tribes in what would become known as the Trail of Tears.

Well aware that Cherokee history was being lost by the day, the community began working on historic preservation in 2008 with a team of Middle Tennessee State University graduate students. The first project was a driving tour brochure of Cherokee sites. Then the group’s thoughts turned to trails.

The National Park Service hosted a planning session in 2014 to create a concept for a Trail of Tears Tribute segment in the city. “People brought in all sorts of historical memorabilia relating to the project, said Woody.

TVA’s Mark Odom helped on that project, bringing in a map of the spring located in the middle of the Cypress Grove. “He also had a lot to do with the observation deck,” said Woody.

The group worked with the Cherokee Nation, National Park Service, Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian, TVA, the Charleston-Calhoun-Hiwassee Historical Society and other partners to develop the first phase, which was completed with the development of the heritage center and trails on city property.

Meanwhile, a donation had been made by a family who sought to encourage plantings and trails in the area. With help from TVA and other partners, individuals viewing the cypress grove from the observation deck can now enjoy Charleston’s native plant garden.

Phase two of the plan calls for trails to be created in Charleston on TVA property, according to Odom. TVA is a monetary and in-kind partner in the interpretive development of the trail. The observation platform and wetland have been incorporated into the concept design.

The city hopes to receive a Recreation Trail Program Grant, focused on connecting schools, parks and playgrounds. “That grant would make it possible to link the park to the cypress grove,” says Woody.  “We hope to include a boardwalk that will skirt the cypress trees and interpret this habitat, which is fed by the spring and filled with wildlife.

Reminiscing about the project, Bates, now eighty years old, recently presented a program at the Hiwassee River Heritage Center about the cypress grove. “I never had any thoughts of it ever being anything but mosquito control,” he said. But now it’s that and more.

“The trails, the interpretation of the cypress grove, the observation deck, the native plant garden – it’s all incredibly important to the development of this heritage project. It will be an impetus for more endeavors and an inspiring centerpiece for Charleston,” says Woody.

All of this, thanks in a small part to some pesky mosquitos and one TVA employee’s idea for a solution - a grove of cypress trees.

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