Along the Highway 69 frontage of the old General Tire/Omnova site on Yorkville Road in Columbus are four magnolia trees, planted in a neat row, now approximately 25 feet tall.
If you’ve ever wondered how old the trees are, there are several methods to estimate the age of trees, all of them involving math.
Or, easier still, you could just ask Allen Ellis and let him do his own precise calculation.
“I’m the one who planted them,” said Ellis. “I got a job there when General Tire opened out there in 1962. So that makes them 60 years old.”
Ellis, who turned 92 on May 8, has outlived or outlasted much of the Columbus and Lowndes County he knew as a child. “Time waits for no man,” he said. “So much has changed.”
Ellis retired from General Tire in 1990. Nine years later, the plant closed and the property was sold to Omnova, which in turn closed and sold the property in 2013. The 80-acre property was sold again in 2019.
What hasn’t changed over those 60 years is the result of a task Ellis was given as General Tire began operations at the site.
“The chief engineer back then was a man named Bob Redwood,” Ellis recalled. “My job was to take care of the buildings and the grounds, cutting the grass and things like that. Bob ran what happened inside and it was my job to take care of the outside.
“One day he came up to me and said he had some magnolias he wanted me to plant on the Highway 69 side of the plant,” he continued. “He said he wanted the plant to look good for people as they passed by. Well, those trees, there was nothing much to them, just little saplings, no bigger than me. I’m 5-foot-7, to give you an idea of how little they were.”
For months, Ellis paid special attention to the saplings, keeping them watered, fertilized and growing. Within a few years, Ellis judged the trees were healthy enough to make it on their own. Ellis said he didn’t think much about them after that.
After retiring in 1990, he drove past the property only on rare occasions.
In 2011, at age 81, Ellis remarried.
For his new bride, Jan, it was like marrying a historian of Columbus.
“He loves to talk about the history of Columbus, where things were and things like that,” Jan Ellis said. “He had mentioned how he had worked at the tire plant several times, but one day as we were driving past it, he mentioned that he had planted the magnolia trees. I told him he should get his picture taken with them.”
Ellis retired at a relatively young age — 60 — but his working life began as a teen.
“I worked for Johnson Furniture Factory when I was underage, maybe 15 or 16,” he said. “The boss there didn’t like me, though, because he thought I was too young to be depending on. So after I turned 18 I went to work for Coca-Cola and drove a delivery route. Then, when General Tire opened, I hired on out there. I was a young man back then.”
Today, Ellis’ days are spent nurturing his spiritual life. He is a deacon at Zion Gate Missionary Baptist Church where he has been a member longer than he can recall.
“Probably 60 years, maybe longer,” he said. “I know I was there before Rev. Boyd came.”
Rev. James Boyd has been the pastor for 57 years.
“Mostly, I spend my time talking to God and asking him to lead me and guide me to love people,” Ellis said. “As the scripture says, ‘Love ye one another as I have loved you.’”’
Although he is not particularly sentimental about the magnolias he planted all those years ago, he does appreciate the idea that they will outlast him.
“You got that right,” he said. “They’ll be out there long after I’m gone. Like I said, time waits for no man.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]