AUBURN, Ala. — A steady stream of people gathered to mourn the apparent imminent demise of the poisoned oak trees at Toomer’s Corner, where Auburn fans traditionally celebrate wins.
The crowd of old and young alike, many clad in orange and blue, began arriving early Saturday morning for the rally dubbed “Toomer’s Tree Hug” and carried on well into the afternoon.
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A fan of rival Alabama — Harvey Updyke Jr., 62 — has been charged with first-degree criminal mischief for allegedly using a tree-destroying herbicide to poison the two 130-year-old oaks after Auburn beat the Crimson Tide in November. He was released from the Lee County Detention Facility on bond Friday night.
It’s a bitter, state-encompassing rivalry — one where the lack of professional sports in the state and two schools dominate the sports landscape makes it different than other storied sports rivalries like North Carolina-Duke, Ohio State-Michigan, Red Sox-Yankees or Lakers-Celtics.
But the heinous act even has devout Alabama fans saying this is taking it too far. One group of ‘Bama fans has started raising money for replacements for the oaks.
Alabama student Sean Phillips, wearing a crimson-and-white Mark Ingram jersey, says it is “a really sad day for Alabama as a whole.”
He made the two-hour drive from home in Birmingham “to support a tradition that will soon be lost here.”
“The guy that did this was crazy,” Phillips said. “There might be animosity between the schools, but there’s always that connection because we’re all from Alabama. We’re all in this together.”
The Toomer’s traditions — including the famously sweet lemonade at Toomer’s Drugs across the street — are ingrained in the state’s culture, like Alabama with Bear Bryant and Denny Chimes. It’s where hundreds of fans celebrated the recent football national championship on Jan. 10.
Toomer’s Corner separates the Auburn campus and downtown, a quick walk from Jordan-Hare Stadium.
And the vandalism has hit the Auburn community hard.
Retired Auburn athletic director David Housel tried to put its significance in terms people outside Southeastern Conference country can understand.
“In New York, Times Square is considered the crossroads of the world,” Housel said. “In our world, Toomer’s Corner is the crossroads of Auburn.”
F.O. Ferguson, of Sylacauga, Ala., came to his first Auburn game in 1934, said Toomer’s Corner is landmark that means a lot to Auburn people.
“I don’t understand why anybody would just maliciously … a tree that’s not bothering anybody.” Ferguson said, shaking his head. “I don’t know. We’ve got some crazies in this world.”
Joyce Parker, an 86-year-old Auburn alum and football season ticker holder, was not about to miss the rally, driving a few hours from her home in Gadsen.
“We love Auburn,” Parker said. “We love the school and we love the town. And we love the trees.”