Even at 350 years old, the Signal Tree in Cascade Metro Park in Akron is still fairly healthy.

A lot of that has to do with the care Davey Tree Expert Co. has provided for more than 40 years, paid for by the Summit County Metro Parks. For the next few years, Davey will sponsor the tree through 2022, granting a reprieve to the park system.

"In my career at Davey, over the last 33 years, the tree is 10 times healthier from the care that it’s been given," said Jeff Crites, Davey’s operation manager of the Great Lakes East Operating Group.

Sandra Reid, Davey’s vice president of corporate communications and strategic planning operations and administration, said the company appreciates the value and history of the Signal Tree and other trees like it.

"As a tree care company, we have a special interest and appreciation for large, historic wonders like the Signal Tree," said Reid. "And since the Signal Tree is in a public green space, it’s especially important that we keep it healthy so our community can enjoy its beauty and the benefits of a healthy and beautiful green space for many years to come."

The bur oak, whose shape resembles a dinner fork with three prongs, is unique among trees, a sign that Native Americans in the area most likely manipulated its growth pattern at a young age, according to both the Summit County Metro Parks and Davey.

The purpose of the tree for the Native Americans remains a mystery, according to Mike Johnson, chief of conservation for Summit County Metro Parks.

"It’s a bur oak, which is an unusual species for our area," he said. "It signaled something, but what it signaled, we don’t really know. It could have been a ceremonial tree; it could have been a signal along the Portage Path, but it’s a good bit away from the river itself."

He said Portage Path is a trail Native Americans used to get from the Cuyahoga River to what it is now Confluence Park, a new Metro Park not far from Firestone Park near the Portage Lakes area and the headwaters of the Tuscarawas River.

Helen Thompson, a public relations project manager for Davey, said she received a clue to the purpose of the tree: a message from a former property owner who believes the tree served as a marker for the beginning of the portage through the gorge, falls and rapids of what is now Cuyahoga Falls.

Its fork-like shape has created the unique challenge of ensuring the main trunk branches don’t collapse under their own weight, said Crites.

"There’s been a lot of cables put in the tree," he said. "Those are the supports you see going from limb to limb."

Situated in an open field, the tree also may attract lightning, said Johnson, but having a lightning rod system didn't work.

"It was too visually obvious," he said. "People were actually using it to climb the tree. It was actually pulling out of the bark and causing damage."

Crites said there are a variety of other more typical treatments Davey provides for the tree, including pruning, providing deep root fertilization, and using a resistograph to measure the strength of the tree’s branches and roots.

At one time, he added, a fourth main branch jutted out from the base, but it broke off, creating a large wound that Davey Tree had to heal.

Whatever the precise purpose of the tree for Native Americans, it’s important to residents and organizations today, including the Sierra Club, the Akron Community Foundation which features the tree in its logo, and Davey Tree, which included the Signal Tree in its calendar, said Johnson.

"Regardless of what it did signal historically, it’s a signal today," Johnson said.

Reporter Bob Gaetjens can be reached at 330-541-9440, bgaetjens@recordpub.com or @bobgaetjens_rpc.