Toomer's Corner oak trees planted

AUBURN, Ala. -- After a little more than five hours of meticulous unloading, digging and planting, a pair of oak trees returned to Toomer's Corner on Saturday.

Auburn fans of all ages, many clad head-to-toe in Tigers gear, flooded the intersection of College Street and Magnolia Avenue to celebrate the restoration of the university's sacred ground nearly two years after the original oaks were removed.

"Those trees are icons to the school, to the fans, to the programs here at Auburn," 27-year-old Auburn fan Joel Stanton said. "You can't explain the importance of them.

"It's a tremendous joy to be able to see them. They're not just trees, they're icons."

Under a cloudless blue sky, joyous fans celebrated the rebirth of a landmark that a few years ago was tarnished by Alabama fan Harvey Updyke, who poisoned the 80-year-old trees during the Tigers' 2010 national championship season.

The new, 35-foot oak trees arrived via flatbed trailers, with the first making its way through the town with a police escort just before 8 a.m. The second arrived a couple hours later and was erected shortly after 1 p.m.

The cheering and chanting that commenced with each tree's arrival gave the moment the feeling of an actual game day in Auburn. Hundreds of fans -- some of whom had been there since 6 a.m. -- flooded Toomer's Corner, five-deep in some spots around the barricade that closed off the site. The crowd stretched beyond J & M Bookstore, and Toomer's Drugs, which faces the trees, was filled well before 10 a.m.

Longtime Auburn fans Jim and Peggie Jo Hartley traveled eight hours from Elizabethtown, Kentucky, to see the new oaks planted. While both felt Saturday's celebration was a special moment for Auburn's fan base, the absence of the trees never took away from the landmark's mystique.

"Auburn's spirit has been here all along," said Jim Hartley, who donned a navy "NO BAMER" hat to Saturday's ceremony.

Landscapers were cheered as they laid each tree trunk into its new hole. Jubilation met calmness, as fans posed for pictures with the new trees in the background and took lots of selfies in front of the myriad orange-and-white barricades.

"It's awesome," Trae Bowen, a graduate student at Auburn, said. "It's current history you're watching right now. I came because I want to be able to say in 50 years that I was here. It's kind of surreal."

Saturday also brought two rabid fan bases together as Robin Rudolph, a staunch Alabama fan, drove with Auburn fan and husband, Jeff, through the night from Cadiz, Kentucky, to see the new trees planted. It was a birthday/Valentine's Day present for Jeff, Robin Rudolph said, that turned into a painful act of kindness for an Alabama fan to endure.

"I figured since it was an Alabama fan that caused it, it was the least I could do," Robin Rudolph said.

The new trees were chosen last June from more than 9,000 oaks in a MeadWestvaco nursery in Ehrhardt, South Carolina. The combined cost to try to save the original trees, the planting of the new trees and improvements to Toomer's Corner totaled around $900,000, said Mike Clardy, Auburn's director of communications.

"This is going to be stuff we're looking at in the Auburn family in 50 years," said Clardy, who added that a spare tree was also brought in case there's a complication with one of the new trees. "This is a big message of the resiliency of this group of people. Something very good has come out of a bad situation."

While Auburn fans have spent years celebrating victories by showering the trees at Toomer's Corner with toilet paper, the university is asking fans not to roll them until the 2016 season in order to give them time to acclimate to their new environment.

Fans will be able to decorate surrounding trees, lamp posts and newly strung AU emblems hanging from lamp posts at Toomer's Corner. Still, having oaks there will provide a little playful anxiety.

"It's gonna be tough," Auburn senior Mitchell Durner said of not being able to decorate the oaks this upcoming season. "I'm sure everyone is going to be respectful of it. It'll be like looking at that Christmas present waiting under the tree."

Another present for fans will be the vast renovation Samford Park plaza will undergo in the next year. The planting of the new oaks was just the beginning, as Clardy said the second part of the school's project will be to add 30 15-foot-tall trees, which were grown from acorns from the original oaks at Toomer's Corner, along a new brick walkway that will connect Samford Hall to Toomer's Corner. Clardy said the renovations will begin after Auburn's spring game April 18, and the new trees will start being planted in February 2016.

"That's going to completely transform the corner," Clardy said.

Really, this has all been a transformation for Auburn. The sadness and anger that blossomed after Updyke's crime were mere afterthoughts, as fans braved an early morning cold to celebrate a physical and symbolic rebirth of tradition.

"It shows the Auburn family can come back from anything," Auburn junior Justine Spear said as the sun flickered off her navy-and-orange Auburn sunglasses.