December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

According to family legend, Caroline Kennedy returned from a class trip to Arlington National Cemetery in 1963 and told her father about a beautiful oak tree she had seen. John F. Kennedy reportedly went to the spot with his brother Robert, stood near the tree and gazed at the vista below. “It’s so beautiful, I could stay forever,” he said. Seven months later, he was buried in the shade of that oak, which stands over his tomb to this day.

When it comes to trees, Jeff Meyer knows dozens of stories like that. As director of the Famous and Historic Trees project run under the auspices of the national American Forests conservation organization, Meyer grows and sells direct offspring of such historic landmarks as the southern magnolia that Andrew Jackson planted behind the White House and that appears on the back of the $20 bill, the honey locust that Abraham Lincoln stood near when he delivered his Gettysburg Address, and the water oak that Helen Keller studied with her fingertips at her childhood home in Tuscumbia, Ala. Even descendants of the last surviving Rambo apple tree planted in Nova, Ohio, around 1840 by John Chapman (better known as Johnny Appleseed) will soon be available. “We’re continuing his life’s work,” says Meyer, 40, of Jacksonville, Fla. “Even when the [original] tree is gone, the legacy lives in people’s yards and schools across the country.’

The legacy he refers to is his most precious responsibility. Through a nonprofit program he launched in 1989, seeds are gathered from nearly 400 historically significant trees, planted and nurtured for one to three years in his Florida tree farm and sold as 18-inch-to 4-foot-tall saplings to schools, individuals and even celebrities (Whoopi Goldberg, Kirstie Alley and others have purchased saplings to give as gifts). Overall, Meyer has sold 75,000 saplings at $35 (plus shipping) each. Not bad for a piece of the past. “It’s a great way to share the history of our country through our oldest living legacies,” he says.

Deborah Gangloff, executive director of American Forests, says Meyer has “a real love of these trees.” Though the 123-year-old group had long ago established a registry of famous trees that should be preserved, they had no program for propagating them. “It was a perfect fit,” says Meyer of their mutual idea to market the saplings. He approached the Washington, D.C.-based organization in 1988, quickly reached an agreement to germinate seeds from trees on its registry, and by 1992 had shipped his first sapling, a tulip poplar from one of the 12 trees George Washington planted at Mount Vernon in 1785. “Jeff took on Historic Trees as a labor of love,” says Gangloff. “He’s certainly not going to get rich at it. But he wanted to give something back to the society, as well as to the earth.”

Growing up in Amana, Iowa, Meyer “delighted in the outdoors,” says his mother, JoAnn, a home-maker, and at age 5 planted his first tree, a black walnut. He was also a natural entrepreneur, says his father, Alex, the retired president of Amana Refrigeration Inc. “In high school,” he recalls, “he raised geese on property we had in the country and sold them to restaurants.” After graduating from Vanderbilt in 1980 with degrees in American history and business management, Meyer took a job selling for Amana in Jacksonville, but quickly yearned for an outdoor job. “You couldn’t pay me a million a year to sit behind a desk,” he says. After starting a tree nursery in 1983, he took his idea for cultivating famous-tree offspring to American Forests five years later. By 1992 his hobby had become his full-time mission. These days he spends almost all his time on his 126-acre farm, where he and his seven-member staff plant up to 10,000 trees a year. Meyer and his wife, Anne, 40, a home-maker, live in historic Jacksonville with their two sons, 14-year-old Forest (yes, Forest) and Scott, 11.

Despite his success, Meyer has even loftier ambitions. One day, he says, he hopes to plant an entire forest made from descendants of historic trees. “It would be like walking down streets where trees could tell stories,” he says. “It would be something we could leave behind.”

Dan Jewel

Don Sider in Jacksonville

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