A dead cypress tree and an 89-year-old plaque that honored former longtime Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools George Philip Morgan were uprooted Friday morning from the lawn of the historic courthouse on Yaney Avenue in downtown Sonora.
Morgan’s 65 consecutive years of service in the field of education was reportedly unmatched in California history at the time of his death in 1945,
Alley Tree and Landscape, based in Sonora, was contracted to remove the roughly 80-foot-tall tree through funding from the county’s tree mortality program. A crane was also used to remove the plaque that was attached to a large marble obelisk near the base of the tree.
The plaque and obelisk were transported to the county’s Carlo M. De Ferrari Archive on Greenley Road in Sonora, where it will be stored for safekeeping until the county selects a new tree to plant in place of the dead cypress.
Daniel Richardson, who oversees facilities management as director of the county General Services Agency, said the tree has been struggling for years since the drought from 2011-2017 and was officially declared dead over the summer.
“We wanted to take it down before it fell down on its own and damaged the courthouse or hit someone,” he said. “It’s kind of routine project, but obviously it’s high profile because it’s downtown. It was a precarious tree for quite some time.”
An inscription on the plaque that was buried near the base of the tree reads: “In honor of George Philip Morgan by the Aronos Research Club, March 7, 1930.”
Articles published in The Union Democrat described an Arbor Day ceremony hosted by Aronos Research Club on March 7, 1930, to plant a sequoia tree in honor Morgan on the grounds of the Columbia public school.
The Union Democrat published an article on March 8, 1930, apologizing for not being able to cover the event due to it coinciding with the newspaper’s press day. There is no mention of a plaque in any of the articles.
Andy Mattos, the county archive and records manager, said he was unable to find a record of whether the tree and plaque had been moved to the lawn outside of the courthouse in downtown Sonora at some point.
Morgan served as the county superintendent of schools from 1885 to 1943, according to a front-page story that was published in The Union Democrat days after his death on Feb. 17, 1945.
A resolution adopted by the State Senate on March 13, 1945, stated that Morgan’s record of public service was “unequalled in the annals of our public school system” at the time.
The resolution also stated that Morgan’s life could be viewed as a link between the eras of California as a “new-born, lusty mining state” to its “commanding place” among the rest of the nation.
Morgan was born in the City Hotel in Columbia in 1859, according to an article from the Tuolumne County Historical Society’s CHISPA publication.
Columbia was an incorporated city and one of the most densely populated places in the state at the time due to people flocking to the gold-rich area in hopes of striking their fortune.
According to the CHISPA article, Morgan’s father instilled a dedication to education among his 12 children due to a lack of opportunities himself as a child. His sister, Rose E.. Morgan, was the first woman superintendent in state history when she became the county superintendent of schools in 1877.
Morgan taught at various schools throughout the county early in his career, some of which had as few as 18 students and were held church buildings.
An obituary for Morgan published on the front page of The Union Democrat on Feb. 22, 1945, stated that he was often referred to as the “Dean of California county school superintendents.”
Dixie Turzai, a member of the Aronos Research Women’s Club in Sonora for the past 22 years, said all of the members who would have been around at the time the tree was planted in honor of Morgan have since passed away.
The club was formed in 1915 when Sonora was “a pretty wild town,” Turzai said.
“The women who founded this group were sick of a town with no sidewalks, mud, no culture,” she said. “They were trying to improve themselves and learn about their world.”
Some of the club’s early work involved planting trees throughout the community. The club currently continues to provide scholarships for young women pursuing careers in teaching and nursing, as well as supporting other community projects.
Aronos, which is “Sonora” spelled backwards, has a clubhouse on 37 Elkin St. that it purchased in 1937 from the Baptist Church for $750. Turzai said it took the women in the club four years during the Great Depression to raise the money.
The club’s membership has dwindled from more than 100 in the mid-20th century to about a dozen, which Turzai said she believes is likely due to more women in the workforce and less interest in joining such clubs upon retirement.
They still meet at the clubhouse on the first and third Tuesdays of each month and host regular teas, with the next one scheduled for Oct. 24 to celebrate Halloween.
“We’re trying to encourage people to at least come and see what we’re all about and hopefully join,” she said. “It’s a club of women who wanted to know more about their world, and improve their society in the small world where they lived. That’s really what this club is all about.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.