The Stories Trees Tell: Unrooting the Past

By Crystal Simmons

 

Precinct 4’s Kissing Tree looms large off T.C. Jester Boulevard and Louetta Road. With its gnarled, moss-covered branches, the ancient oak looks like it belongs on a stately, centuries-old campus instead of a busy intersection near a gas station.

 

Although this humble home may not seem important at first, it’s what makes Kissing Tree unique. The oak’s roots go back more than 170 years to Prussian immigrant Herman Strack. A successful blacksmith, cattle owner, and business owner, Strack immigrated to the Klein area in 1848 and accumulated an estimated 1,445 acres over his lifetime. Family records show a large oak tree, believed to be the Kissing Tree, marked Strack’s homestead and blacksmith shop.

 

Julie Haggard draws a map showing the Kissing Tree’s location on her family property.

As the area grew, family members sold off land. When the community had a need, the Stracks provided. Businesses, housing developments, roads, and other community amenities – like Strack Intermediate School and the Strack Family Cemetery – now sit on land sold or donated by the Strack family.

 

Emil and Mary Strack Theiss eventually inherited the old Strack property where the tree grew and opened a farm. Julie Haggard, their niece and Herman Strack’s great-great-granddaughter, recalled playing under the tree as a child with her sister, Marjorie, in the early 1950s.

 

“As a child, I passed by the tree daily as I walked to Kuykendahl and Louetta, where the bus picked me up,” she says. “There was no bus service on Louetta, as the road was gravel.”

 

The community looked much different back then. Instead of developments and convenience stores, Haggard remembers mossy forests and farmland. She considers Kissing Tree a remnant of that time. 

 

“The old tradition was to make Easter nests for the kids out of the tree moss,” she says. “There was moss all over that tree. You don’t see moss on the trees like that anymore. All the trees but that one have been bulldozed down and are gone.”

 

As the community grew, Earnest Strack opened Strack’s Restaurant in 1982, which provided farm-fresh favorites, along with a banquet hall for weddings, anniversaries, and birthday parties. 

 

Before T.C. Jester Boulevard opened, the large oak served as a popular picnic and photo spot among locals. Many proposals took place under its branches over the next 40 years, earning it the name Kissing Tree.

 

Despite its popularity, the oak’s future seemed uncertain after the restaurant closed in 2014. Developers bought the property and planned a Circle K convenience store and gas station. They intended to remove the Kissing Tree to build a driveway for traffic entering the store off T.C. Jester Boulevard. 

 

But the tree hadn’t been forgotten.

 

Precinct 4 donated a Kissing Tree seedling to the Terranova West Municipal Utility District.

Public outcry and a letter-writing campaign by Klein Oak High School students, civic associations, municipal utility districts, the Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce, and others earned the tree a reprieve, and an agreement between Circle K and Precinct 4 Commissioner R. Jack Cagle sealed the tree’s fate. Circle K agreed to leave the tree after Precinct 4 pledged to alter the median so vehicles on both sides of T.C. Jester could access the store. Cagle then had the county purchase the property and opened Kissing Tree Park in 2017.

 

The decision prompted arborist Laura Medick to explore Kissing Tree’s history and incorporate it into Precinct 4’s Legacy Tree’s Project, a program that preserves the genetic data of historical trees across Texas.

 

She worked with Haggard in 2019 to record details linking the tree to the Strack family. Thanks to Haggard’s account and records from the Strack family history book, the Texas A&M Forest Service designated Kissing Tree a “Famous Tree of Texas” in April 2020, adding the tree to others across Texas that have witnessed historical periods and events. 

 

Medick also began growing saplings from Kissing Tree’s acorns. As the saplings matured, she planted them in public parks and donated them to nonprofits. She now hopes to share and preserve Kissing Tree’s history with the public through educational signage and historical tree donations in neighborhoods across the precinct. 

 

In a ceremony early last year, she even planted three Kissing Tree saplings in Terranova West, not far from Kissing Tree. Haggard also received a sapling from Medick recognizing the Strack family’s contributions.

 

“Our community and the surrounding property were all owned by the Strack family at one time,” says Tom Lovell, the Terranova West MUD board president. “Family members still live in and near our community. As the area grows and green spaces disappear, especially along Louetta Road, the Kissing Tree is a beautiful reminder of what the area once was before development.”

 

Haggard continues to live on the family property where she was born, not far from the mother oak and Terranova West. Although the area has changed, Haggard views Kissing Tree as a reminder of the people who shaped the community.

 

“It is a very large, live tribute to the hard-working men and women who sacrificed so much to come to this country,” she wrote in a letter thanking Cagle. “They left their families knowing they would never see them again so that they could give their children and future generations a better life. That is us.”