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March Mania

Cottonwood in pasture near Portland, N.D., named the state’s largest tree

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Bob and Myrna Bower hold a photograph of their granddaughters, Shaelyn Johnson, left, and Natalie Bower climbing a giant cottonwood tree in Steele County at Myrna's farm where she grew up. The cottonwood is on the North Dakota Forest Service's Register of Champion Trees as the largest of its species in North Dakota as of 2017. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service2 / 2

PORTLAND, N.D. — Ole and Lena bought a small farm about 14 miles west of Portland. The couple spent about $1,500 for the quarter of land in 1911, and it was there they farmed and raised pigs, chickens and cattle ... and their six children and one giant tree.

And that's no joke.

Myrna and Bob Bower, of Grand Forks and rural Portland, say it's all true.

"So, now you know there really is an Ole and Lena," Myrna said. They were Ole and Lena Oie, and they were her grandparents.

The Bowers recently were recognized by the NDSU-North Dakota Forest Service as the owners of the state's Champion Cottonwood.

The gargantuan tree — with its impressive trunk girth of 30 feet around, its towering height of 105 feet and average crown spread of 92 feet — is considered North Dakota's largest tree.

The Forest Service's Glenda Fauske said the tree might be 200 years old or older.

"I've always known about the big tree," Myrna said. "It's in the pasture by the Middle Goose River, so I guess that's what kept it going all these years. It's had plenty of water."

That, and it's too far into the pasture for anybody to bother with cutting it down. Myrna said she remembers running up and down the steep hill and beneath the shade of the great giant to wade in the creek as a child.

"We lived in Mayville growing up, but Sunday dinner at the farm was a necessity," she said.

The Bowers this week sat down to share photos of their now-famous tree that's "always been there." They said it's too tough to reach in the wintertime, but on paper the cottonwood still reached for the sky in all its green glory.

First, there was a picture of a miniature Bob, dwarfed by a towering trunk that refused to split until it cleared his head by another 5 feet. A man's cap resting on the bark looked more like a ladybug.

And still another picture showed their granddaughters, one perched in the tree's "v" and the other on the ground nearby.

"Shaelyn's (Johnson) mad because she can't climb it," Bob says with the laugh.

"She doesn't have the tree-climbing ability of her cousin, Natalie (Bower)," Myrna adds. "You know she's related to me. I really wasn't a tree climber, either. I don't ever remember being able to do it. It was a challenge. You had to have strength because it's a wall."

Even so, the Bowers seem to have both green thumbs and champion blood. Beautiful blooming plants surround them in their living room. And this past summer, Bob said he grew at least a 150-pound pumpkin in their giant garden patch.

And yet another photo shows Bob and Shaelyn holding twin trophies — his earned as Fargo Oak Grove's 1957 state champion in the mile run, Shaelyn's as Red River High School's 2016 state tennis champion. At the time, she was just an eighth-grader.

"Just 59 years between champions. That's not so bad for one family," Bob says with a chuckle.

No, not bad at all.

Or as Ole and Lena would say: "Uff-da, das pretty good. But Sven will you do it again?"

Did you know?

So, what's the nation's largest tree? The Forest Service says it's a California giant sequoia named "General Sherman." The tree is said to be the largest living thing in the world with a weight equal to 360 elephants. The 274-foot-tall tree has a girth of 85 feet and an average crown spread of 107 feet.

To learn more about North Dakota's 2017 Register of Champion Trees, go to