giant pecan, which still stands outside Helen Bentley’s house in Fort
Davis, grew from a sapling planted in 1873.
While the tree has long
since exceeded a pecan’s typical 75- to 100-year lifespan, some pecans have been
known to live for two centuries or more. But the exceptional age of the huge tree
in Fort Davis is
only part of its story, a tale that begins with the arrival of a mulatto Buffalo
soldier at the army garrison that gave this mile-high community its name.
soldier was Kentucky-born George Bentley, a private who came to Fort
Davis in April 1868 with Co. K, Fifth U.S. Infantry. Then 23, he had enlisted
in the Army at Louisville, KY on Dec. 8, 1866. Though he and his fellow foot soldiers
left Fort Davis for
occasional marches in the field, his primary duty was baking bread. In May 1871,
the Army moved Co. K farther west to Fort
Quitman on the Rio Grande in what is now Culberson County, but when his enlistment
expired that December, Bentley returned to Fort
Davis and got a job as a civilian packer and teamster. Now married, Bentley
also acquired some cattle, plenty of free grazing land being still available.
“My pa had cattle by the time he quit the army,” George Bentley Jr. told writer
Barry Scobee in the spring of 1964. “One day he was looking after them down Limpia
Canyon when he saw a little bitty pecan switch growing out of the ground by some
boulders where there was a water seep.”
The former soldier, not realizing
that the Davis Mountains did have a small population of native pecans, wondered
how the sapling got where it did. “He said likely soldiers, or maybe Indians,
rested in the shade of the rocks and dropped a pecan that germinated,” Bentley
interested in the sapling’s origin than its potential to provide shade and pecans
for his growing family, Bentley plucked the sprout and brought it home.
sister Flora, oldest of the seven children, planted it close to a well that was
12 feet deep and in rich soil,” Bentley said.
ample moisture and nutrients, the sapling took root and grew into a sturdy tree.
After about a decade, the pecan began producing nuts, the robustness of its yield
cycling every-other-year. While even a hearty tree can fall victim to disease,
in the days before penicillan and more sophisticated antibiotics, children stood
particularly vulnerable to dangerous infections.