I felt nervous and self-conscious Tuesday afternoon as I approached the huge live oak tree. It stands in the patio between the Paso Robles Library/City Hall and its parking lot. I wanted to measure the tree’s girth.
Hardly anyone was around, so I stepped over the low iron fence around the tree. No one challenged my action as I encircled the tree’s trunk with my measuring tape. At shoulder height, it measured 10.5 feet around.
I measured it because I have a picture that was taken in 1956 of that very tree. Its trunk didn’t look much thicker than a mop handle.
That picture appears on a program for the dedication of Paso Robles’ “new” City Hall on March 24, 1956. It shows the single-story, stucco and brick City Hall and its front entryway, with the then-slender tree in a planter.
But today, that tree is indeed huge. It shades the spacious patio and seems at least as tall as the two-story city building. The patio’s park benches are under the tree’s canopy. All visitors can take shelter there from Paso’s baking summer sun.
That “new” 1956 city hall lasted almost 40 years. It was torn down and replaced in 1995 by the present Library/City Hall. But the tree remained.
In 1956, Paso Robles was in the early stages of a lengthy economic hangover, which was caused by the closing of Camp Roberts when the Korean War ended in 1953. Roblans were also dreading the construction of a freeway bypass. It would divert Highway 101 traffic away from downtown Paso Robles businesses. It was completed in 1958.
But the tree still grew and so did the city. Since 1956, Paso Robles’ population has grown from 6,500 to 30,000, and its area grew from 1,800 acres to more than 12,000.
Other things have changed too. Paso Robles now has big-box shopping centers. And many area farmers now raise wine grapes instead of grain, cattle, sugar beets or almonds.
In 2003, Paso Robles and the live oak tree were shocked by a 6.5-magnitude earthquake. It reawakened the dormant hot sulfur spring under the parking lot near the tree. That spring had originally attracted settlers to Paso Robles.
It took the city seven years to contain the spring and pave over it, but the sulfur water and vapors seem to have strengthened the tree, not weakened it.
In troubled times, Paso Robles needs to be like its oak: calm, helpful and in for the long haul.