SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARKS, Calif. - For as long as I can remember, my father has told the story of his uncle from back home in Illinois who, upon his death, somehow wound up having his ashes entombed in a giant sequoia tree in California.
My father had never actually seen the tree and this bit of family lore always seemed strange, even far-fetched. But as part of a personal quest to learn more about my heritage, I recently discovered the uncle-in-a-tree story is absolutely true.
I saw it myself earlier this month, four miles down a rugged dirt road on the western boundary of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, where I stood at the base of the giant redwood tree that contains the ashes of a great-uncle who died a decade before I was born.
The man in the tree
Merritt Berry Pratt was born in the tiny hamlet of Paw Paw, Illinois on Oct. 3, 1878.
He was my grandmother's older brother and was described in a 1959 biography by C. Raymond Clar as a "short, plump and rather handsome lad," which, I suppose, was intended as some sort of compliment.
Merritt received a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago in 1904 and a master's degree in forestry from Yale a year later, after which he was immediately hired by the newly-established United States Forest Service.
Merritt was assigned to the Tahoe National Forest, and at a 1906 Fourth of July picnic in Nevada City he met Laura May Schraeder, who became his wife the following year.
He left the Forest Service in 1914 to teach at UC Berkeley in the new Division of Forestry of the College of Agriculture, and four years later was appointed deputy California state forester in Sacramento.
On Nov. 25, 1921, Merritt Pratt became California's fourth state forester when his boss, George Homans, died of injuries sustained in a car crash earlier that year.
Uniforms and fire lookouts
Merritt headed up the agency now known as Cal Fire for 23 years -- at the time the longest tenure of any state forester in the United States, and he was instrumental in turning the Division of Forestry into a professional organization.
Under his leadership, rangers began wearing uniforms (although they had to buy the uniforms themselves). One of Merritt's two daughters designed the first patch that was worn on the right arm.
Merritt supervised the construction of a network of fire lookouts, and one in Humboldt County is named after him.
But he was also criticized for his "congenial" personality when, in later years, the Division of Forestry might have been better served by a more aggressive manager.
Several boxes of personal correspondence in the California State Archives show that Merritt spent a good deal of time cultivating relationships that helped him survive at least four attempts to have him removed from the position.
A Jan. 9, 1935 letter to the publisher of the San Francisco Argonaut is typical of those sent to his supporters:
As you have probably noted from the daily press, I am to be retained as State Forester. In this connection, I wish to express my sincere appreciation of your efforts on my behalf and to assure you that I will do everything in my power to protect and perpetuate all of the natural resources of California. With kindest personal regards and good wishes to you for the New Year, I am, sincerely, M.B Pratt, State Forester
Retirement and sudden death
Merritt retired from the Division of Forestry on the last day of 1944 and went on a Mexican vacation with his wife.
Ten months later, just a few weeks after his 67th birthday, Merritt died in his sleep at his longtime east Sacramento home at 3131 C Street.
At the time of Merritt's retirement, his friends and colleagues cast a bronze plaque and placed it on a sequoia tree that had been dedicated to him in the 1930s.
On July 14, 1946, they returned to the tree with an urn containing his ashes and cemented it into a recess created by a fire near the base of the tree.
The tree is located in a grove of pine and redwood trees known as Whitaker Forest (or Whitaker's Forest), administered by UC Berkeley's Center for Forestry, where Merritt served as associate professor a century ago.
Pilgrimage to the Merritt Pratt tree
My eighth-grade daughter Samantha and I decided to take our first-ever trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks during spring break to try to find the Merritt Pratt tree.
There are 215 giant sequoias in Whitaker Forest, so I contacted forest manager Rob York not only to seek permission to enter the forest, but to get instructions on how to find the one sequoia we were looking for.
York provided a detailed description and said it was fine with him if we wanted to try to find the Merritt Pratt tree, but he warned the high elevation on the western slope of the Sierra often made it inaccessible until late May.
York liked our chances, however, given the drought conditions of the past winter.
On a bright and clear April 17 -- one hour after we saw the largest living tree in the world, known as the General Sherman -- we crept down an unmarked and unpaved road toward a tree that held far more significance for our family.
I kept expecting to see a gate or chain blocking our path as we left the national parks property and entered Whitaker Forest.
The road was remarkably dry for mid-April, although I frequently asked Samantha to get out of the car to check for clearance between the undercarriage and the rocks and ruts below.
And then, four miles after we passed a sign marking the western boundary of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, the dirt road opened to a clearing. It was Whitaker Forest.
Sam and I spent about 20 minutes walking the property before we saw it: There, in a group of tall trees at the bottom of a hill, was one tree that stood above the others.
The large bronze plaque is affixed just above eye level:
This tree was dedicated to Merritt B. Pratt State Forester of California from 1921 to 1944. At the time of his retirement the employees of the State Division of Forestry cast this plaque in his honor and placed it here
We spent a few minutes taking pictures and letting the history wash over us before we walked back to the car.
I was dying to call my dad to tell him we'd just seen his Uncle Merritt, but it would have to wait until we got back down to the valley because there was no cell service in the forest. My dad was thrilled when he heard the news.
My dad, Jim, is 88 years old and was a teenager serving in the U.S. Army in Germany when his uncle passed away in Sacramento.
Last fall, I had the pleasure of accompanying my father to his 70th high school reunion in La Grange, Illinois. Our next trip will be to Whitaker Forest, now that I know where to find Merritt's tree.
In helping with research for this story, I acknowledge with gratitude the assistance of my good friend and genealogist Ron Gallup, Whitaker Forest manager Rob York, the wonderful staff of the California State Archives and the terrific pictures from the Marian Koshland Bioscience and Natural Resources Library at the University of California, Berkeley.