At the corner of Nolt and Colebrook roads just on the border of East Donegal and West Donegal townships stood what many have called “the sign-eating tree.” The tall oak tree which stood at the edge of Jim Hoffman’s farm recently fell during the bout of heavy rainfall at the end of May. The tree will be most remembered for its age as well as its most notable feature – the fact that its bark grew around a large metal sign many years ago.
“Most people don’t know the significance of the tree,” Jim Hoffman said. “I have glass print negatives, (an early form of photography) dating to 1900, which show the tree.”
Following the uprooting of the tree, Hoffman had the opportunity to age the tree by its rings and indicated the tree is approximately 175 years old.
“When we purchased this farm in 1946, it was here,” Hoffman said. “I thought I would outlive this tree. It was a part of the family.”
Throughout the years many have speculated about what the sign originally said underneath the bark of the tree. Hoffman has dismissed any person who claims they know what the sign said.
“No one has been permitted to cut into the tree and no one would be alive in my lifetime would know,” Hoffman said.
Nevertheless, people continue to wonder what words may have been “eaten” by this elderly tree, one such local is Brenda-Bert Hanson.
“I grew up on Mill Road, near there. I remember as a teenager in the early ’70s someone chiseled away the bark,” Hanson said. “I hadn’t realized it was a sign before that. It said ‘Colebrook Road.’” This isn’t the first time this tree has been featured in its history. The oak and its story of man versus nature was printed about in 1968 and 1991 in the Elizabethtown Chronicle a newspaper that went out of business in 2009, as well as a feature in “The Scribbler,” a column by Jack Brubaker in the Lancaster newspaper LNP.
The tree also gained attention from John Kendig, a local author and nature enthusiast who wrote of the tree in his book. He and Hoffman took one of the most recognizable photos with the tree and it was featured in many publications including a brief mention in “Country Extra” magazine, a national magazine highlighting rural living. The photo shows the sharp impression of the signunderneath the overgrown
bark and the knobs that protrude from the edge of the tree. According to Hoffman’s sister Bonita Hoffman- Berrier the sign underneath was “about 4 feet long and 8 inches wide.”
Hoffman says the tree’s death is due to a backlog of water and run-off from the newly built housing development across the road from Colebrook Road.
“The tree was broken below ground level,” he said. “Usually when a tree comes up, it comes up by the roots, this wasn’t the case here.”
Following the tree’s fall, Hoffman is giving away the wood from the tree, except for the section which contains the bark and the metal sign underneath. According to Hoffman this portion of the tree is “a part of history.”
The tree and its remains can be seen lying along the side of the road where it once stood, and although gone, its legacy remains a part of the local history and in many ways folklore of the Elizabethtown area.