Tribbett Woods

Near the small Jennings County community of Commiskey stands Tribbett Woods, one of the few remaining examples of old growth “flat woods” in Indiana today. This 33 acre grove has been in the Tribbett family since 1857. When I first visited the Tribbett home in 1980, the last two members of this lineage, Ida and Clifford Tribbett, were still living across the field just east of the woods. Born around the turn of the twentieth century, this brother and sister, neither of whom had married, had known this woods all of their lives.

In 1980 they were no longer farming, but Clifford still milked one cow and Ida churned the cream and made butter. She also kept a small flock of ducks and geese and raised a garden. An outhouse was still in use and a pendulum clock ticked off the minutes as we rocked and talked about their lives and the affairs of the world.

The conversation often turned to the woods. What would happen to it after they were gone? The tillable land and buildings would go to the family who had taken over the farming when Clifford retired, but the woods was a different matter. Even though they were not “well off,” they did not want to sell it. They would have preferred to make a gift to The Nature Conservancy, but were not covered by Social Security and felt they might need extra income if they required long-term medical care. How could they solve this dilemma?

The State Director of The Nature Conservancy came up with a plan. First an appraisal of the trees was done to determine their value. Then TNC set aside this amount in an account that could only be used for medical emergencies. This wasn’t a sale, nor was it a gift, and it suited the Tribbetts.

Unfortunately, Clifford passed away before the woods changed ownership, but Ida continued to live in the home for several more years. She was at peace knowing that the stately beech and chestnut oaks would be spared and the money was there if she needed it.

The Indiana Chapter of The Nature Conservancy transferred ownership to Oak Heritage Conservancy in 2005, in accord with its policy to divest some of its properties to local land trusts that can better monitor them. We are delighted to steward this land, as it is an outstanding example of the “flat woods” that were common in southeast Indiana in pre-settlement days.

The term “flat woods” refers to the table-like terrain of this plant community. These woods are wet in spring and dry in fall, and only certain plants can thrive in these harsh conditions. The woods are alternately wet and droughty because their soils prevent spring rains from percolating down into the ground and then dry out quickly in the heat of summer. The soils were formed over thousands of years, from wind blown loess, laid over till from the Illinoian glacier. Beech, swamp oaks, red maples, tuliptree, and sweet gum dominate this forest, and a special array of wildflowers, ferns, sedges, and shrubs grow in the understory.

— Based on Paul Carmony’s article in the Oak Heritage Conservancy 2005 newsletter