In a grassy field along the Old Oregon Trail Route on Highway 203 south of La Grande, five former Union County residents each planted a tiny conifer seedling on April 24, 1979, in penance for a 40-year-old prank that toppled a landmark during their wild youth.
The stunt that felled the 97-year-old Ponderosa pine tree, a landmark along the route, made national headlines in 1939. The Lone Tree was the victim of a prank perpetrated by Robert Watts, Roland McCroskrie, Bill Southhall, Bill Wiese and Lyle Morehead, La Grande high school students, who didn’t realize the worth of the tree. “We thought we would cause a little devilment,” said Weise, 59, of San Mateo, Calif.
The group hit upon the idea of cutting down the tree while driving between La Grande and Union and enjoying a little Red Cap ale that warm, drizzly night. Two of the group did the sawing while the others drove up and down Highway 203 in Morehead’s car, keeping a lookout. They were caught the following day, supposedly by an alert Oregon State Police trooper, but more likely because everyone at the high school knew the identities of the tree-cutters.
Not only did the incident make headlines across the country, a national radio show did a skit parodying the prank. “It was blown up to magnificent proportions,” Wiese added. According to McCroskrie, half of La Grande’s residents thought it was funny; the other half was not amused. “Fifty percent were for hanging us and 50 percent for shooting,” cracked Wiese.
The boys were sentenced in June 1939 to 30 days hard labor. They sweated under the summer sun to saw Lone Tree into firewood, dug up the taproot, and then painted guard rails from Kamela to Hot Lake.
The return to La Grande was the brainchild of Watts, who in 1979 was a Clackamas County deputy sheriff and a former police chief for the city of Union. Southhall, who spent 3 1/2 years in a Japanese prison camp, became a world traveler and settled in Kansas. McCroskrie retired a colonel from the U.S. Air Force and moved to Florida. Of the original crew, only Morehead was absent; he died in Italy during World War II when his plane crashed. Another childhood friend, Dr. Leonard Lee (who took no part in the original incident), stood in for Morehead during the planting ceremony.
Wiese also made one final act of contrition: He paid each of his compatriots $3, a sum he had owed them since their time on the road gang for the Lone Tree stunt.