Frank Troskey expects the loblolly pine trees he selected to reach a height of 100 feet and last more than 100 years. Photo provided
Most people see Frank Troskey’s cross of giant pine trees while driving on U.S. 82, a main artery running east and west through the northern half of Mississippi.
Just west of Columbus, a town of 26,000 people near the Mississippi-Alabama state line, motorists can spot the trees if they know what they are looking for.
From the ground, the densely packed trees next to the Trinity Church don’t look special. The green cluster of loblolly pines measures 250 feet long and 200 feet wide, and reaches some 50 feet into the Mississippi summer sky.
It’s equal parts art, agriculture and religious icon. But viewing it from the highway at 70 miles per hour doesn’t do it justice. It’s like driving by the Grand Canyon and seeing only a big hole in the ground.
Point of view is everything. To capture the essence of Troskey’s agro-art icon, it needs to be seen the way the artist envisioned it when he and some church volunteers planted 350 seedlings on the church grounds in 1993 — from the air.
But first, a little background.
Troskey, BS ’53, grew up 15 miles north of Terre Haute, Ind., in the tiny town of Universal. He spent his summers playing in the woods two blocks from his home, where he learned to love nature.
Frank Troskey; his brother, Anthony; and sisters, Victoria and Elizabeth, all left the Indiana town of Universal to serve during World War II. This year, the Troskey family funded a five-ton granite monument to the 163 war veterans from Universal, placed the monument on land they owned, then deeded the land to Universal. Photo by Gene Troskey
When he turned 18 in 1943, like so many of his generation he joined the Navy to help defend his country.
Troskey rose to the rank of lieutenant and flew more than a dozen Navy aircraft, including the F4U Corsair — the same type used in the 1970s TV show “Black Sheep Squadron” — and the F9F-6 Cougar jet — used by the Navy’s Blue Angels aerobatic flying team.
But when he returned from active duty, Troskey found there were too many pilots for too few flying jobs. He went to work for retailer Montgomery Ward in Terre Haute but left after one year.
“I was working too many hours and I was inside,” Troskey said. “I wasn’t happy.”
An aptitude test told Troskey he would make a good forester. “I didn’t even know what a forester did. But once I took that test, I thought, ‘Well, that’s a job I would like,’” Troskey said.
He went to Purdue and earned a forestry degree in three years, surviving month to month. When times got especially tough for Frank and his wife, Esther, they made ends meet with the buck or two that relatives occasionally would slip in the mail for the young couple.
“I don’t know how we did it, but somehow, we scraped by,” he said.
The Chicago Mill and Lumber Company hired Troskey to inventory its quarter-million acres of hardwood forests along the Mississippi River and its tributaries in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana from Memphis to Natchez. He measured and graded more than 15,000 trees.
“In the river bottoms, we were often in the swamps with the water moccasins and mosquitoes, but I loved the work,” he said. “Esther learned what I did and understood the pleasures and hardships of the profession.”
Troskey and his wife, Esther, who died in 2009, restored this antebellum home in Columbus, Miss., one of more than 150 homes in the community that survived the Civil War. Photo by Gene Troskey
Esther Troskey joined the newly built Trinity Church in Columbus in the early 1990s. Frank offered a landscaping idea that would combine his love of trees with his love of flying: the giant cross of trees.
The Golden Triangle Regional Airport, an 8,000-foot runway serving northeast Mississippi, is less than a mile away from the church. Troskey understood the flight patterns of all planes using the airport for takeoffs and landings.
“What if we plant trees in the shape of a giant cross?” Troskey asked Pastor Curtis Petrey. “People would be able to see the pine tree cross from the air on every flight coming into or leaving Columbus.”
Petrey liked the idea. His son, Bert, even helped Troskey plant the trees. Troskey selected the loblolly for its uniform foliage and because it maintains its green color year-round.
During the winter months, when the grass is dormant and brown, the bright green color of the pine tree cross really stands out from the air,” Troskey said.
When the trees were planted in 1993, and for several years after, the cross wasn’t much to look at. But within five or six years of the long Mississippi growing seasons, the seedlings grew tall and wide enough to fill in the spaces and form the solid cross that is visible today.
Today, the giant cross stands as Troskey, now 86, intended: first and foremost as a monument to God but also to his careers in aviation and forestry.