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Stump of Contention

Byron Crawford-Courier Journal-April 23, 1990

Submitted by McCreary County Museum

There is a 300-million-year-old story behind the sandstone tree stump that sits in the front yard of McCreary County’s Stearns Museum.

Last summer, a surface-mining company working in Tennessee near the Kentucky line unearthed the two-ton stump buried about 30 feet underground.  It measures slightly more than 15 feet in circumference and almost six feet in diameter.

Several more feet of the fossilized trunk were broken apart at the mining site and could be saved.

Billy J. Kidd of McCreary County, an employee of the mining company, loaded the stump into his truck and brought it to the Stearns Museum, where a crane was used to place the unusual specimen in the yard.

“We have talked to people at the University of Kentucky, and they say it’s not a petrified stump but a sandstone replacement of a tree that was growing 300 million to 315 million years ago,” said Dr. Frank Thomas, retired former president of the Stearns Coal and Lumber Co. and now a volunteer worker at the museum.

“I’d guess it was a large oak, but we’re not sure,” he said.

The tree had rotted out or dissolved and was replaced with sandstone rather than the petrified agate-like material found in the Petrified Forest, Thomas said.

Last year, not long after the stump was placed in front of the museum, former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker stopped by for a visit and wondered aloud why—since the stump was found in his native Scott County, Tenn.—it wasn’t on display there.

“Because you stole the land from us,” Thomas told Baker.

Thomas says records show that when the southern boundary of Kentucky was being surveyed, the surveyor got turned around in the mountains and, as a result, the Kentucky state line is seven or eight miles too far north in some places.

“You can look at the Kentucky map, and when you get down to the Tennessee River (near Kentucky Lake), where it goes down and has that little notch in it, that notch shouldn’t be there,” Thomas said.  The boundary line should run straight east all the way from the river to Virginia, he said.

If that is the case, the prehistoric sandstone stump would not merely be a wonder of nature but also a fitting monument to a magnificent blunder, too colossal to ever correct.

But at least Kentucky got the stump.

During the winter, Stearns Museum officials feared that if water got into cracks in the stump and froze, the artifact might crumble.  So they covered it with a tarpaulin.

“We believe it needs to have a urethane coating of some kind on it to prevent the elements from getting in there,” Thomas said.  “We have to do that this summer because it is too nice an object to let it crumble.”

So there the 300-million-year-old stone stump sits, for all who pass through the yard of the Stearns Museum to stop and admire, and for Kentuckians and Tennesseans to argue over for the next 300 million years.

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