Real history or not, Conway's hanging oak tree to be preserved

The city of Conway is working to preserve a prized landmark in local and state history. Total Tree Care and Appraisal of Pawleys Island has donated its work to save what's known as the Hanging Oak in downtown Conway, where the state's last legal hanging took place more than a century ago. Or maybe not.

The preservation work began Tuesday.

"We're taking care of the large dead wood, anything that could hurt somebody when they walk by," said Total Tree Care arborist Jeff Preston.

Getting rid of the dead limbs and fertilizing around the roots should help the old oak survive for many more years, he said. That's important, because the tree has a unique legacy.

"History has it that the last legal hanging execution was on this tree in 1909," said the town's arborist and parks superintendent Wanda Lilly.

The tree is of such legend that some local folks who watched Preston removed the dead limbs Tuesday asked to take home chunks of the tree. "Because of its history. That's the hanging tree," said Conway resident Pam Levandoski.

Not so fast, said Coastal Carolina University historian Ben Burroughs. "I do not believe that anyone was ever hung on that tree."

Burroughs said he's been trying for years to tell people in Conway there is no historical documentation of any hanging from the tree.

Executions would have been done in the old county jail, he said, or on a gallows in a popular gathering place outside of town. Not right on Main Street.

"I do not think they would have hung somebody within 20 feet of a tavern or a merchandise type building," he said.

Lilly said it's a beautiful tree, stressed-out by concrete surroundings and heavy traffic, so whether it has a hanging history or not, it's a landmark that deserves to be saved.

"It's your first sight when you come over the bridge, you know you're in Conway," she said.

Lilly said for the way the tree helps absorb storm water and reduce what's called the urban heat island effect, it's well worth the city's effort to care for it.

Lilly said she doesn't know for sure how old the Hanging Oak is, but arborists say it's not unusual for a live oak tree to survive for 200 years or more.