Justin Robinette has always held a job in the green industry, but nothing could prepare him for the day he had to bring down one of The Square’s most iconic landmarks.
Memories started to flood in as he climbed the tree for the final time, not as that 6-year-old kid playing on The Square with his grandparents, but as the worker tasked with removing one of downtown Covington’s iconic magnolias. From those timeless outings with loved ones to snapping rites-of-passage pictures, the trees had been a vital part of his upbringing.
Growing up, Justin Robinette was no stranger to The Square. He often found himself picnicking with his grandparents every other weekend under one of those magnolias. “As kids,” he said, “we wanted to try and climb them because they were so huge and they were just magnificent trees.” Even in middle school, it was the hangout place. On a few occasions, Robinette remembers getting kicked off The Square for attempting to climb the trees. The hot spot continued into high school and turned full circle for Robinette when his daughter took prom photos with the magnolias as the backdrop.
The tradition of hanging out on The Square was generational for Robinette. His grandparents took his parents there, then passed on the pastime to him through strolls on the sidewalk and ice cream under the trees. Eventually, Robinette took his own family, whether it be for pictures or just to sit and enjoy the views.
The magnolias witnessed 120-plus years’ worth of Covington’s history. Imagine the time lapse they could have put together. They had also been prominently featured in a number of television series. The Square was the setting for a number of memorable scenes in “The Dukes of Hazzard,” which aired on CBS from Jan. 26, 1979 to Feb. 8, 1985 and starred Catherine Bach, John Schneider and Tom Wopat. Fans of the show often refer to it as “Hazzard Square.” One such scene in the fifth episode of Season 1 saw the Dukes driving the wrong way through The Square towards the courthouse. Also visible in the shot: the two gorgeous magnolias.
“It was a sad day, but at the end of the day, I can always remember that I was the only one that cut that tree down.”Justin Robinette
Those trees were also present in fictional Mystic Falls, Virginia—the setting for the hit series “The Vampire Diaries.” For eight seasons, the show thrilled fans on The CW. It ran from Sept. 10, 2009 to March 10, 2017 and starred Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley and Ian Somerhalder, The Square often serving as the backdrop for major events in storylines.
When “In the Heat of the Night” brought Sparta, Mississippi, and the exploits of its police chief to viewers on NBC and CBS, The Square and its magnolias had front-row seats in many of the 142 episodes that aired between March 6, 1988 and May 16, 1995. The popular series starred the great Carroll O’Connor, he of “All in the Family” fame.
Robinette might not have been present for the filming of those shows or the countless Hollywood movies that utilized downtown Covington, but he was there to play a major role in the removal of one of the trees due to safety concerns over fallen limbs. He has worked for Arbor Equity for years and was tasked with the preservation of the trees on The Square. Every two years, the company treated the ground around the magnolias and broke up the dirt, as the constant flow of visitors around the trees compacted the soil and threatened their health. Robinette admits it was difficult to keep the trees alive because they themselves had become celebrities.
When the time came for one of the magnolias to come down, it was a difficult process for Robinette. Past experiences beamed back to him.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I honestly thought that when the limb fell, we could save it.”
There was much discussion about what to do with the area where the magnolia once stood. Planting another tree seemed like a given, and the wood from the fallen magnolia could possibly be used for benches. Nevertheless, a void remains.
“It will never be the same,” Robinette said. “I don’t even know if they’ll plant another magnolia. It might be a maple.”
While the magnolia that once stood outside of Hal’s Diner on “Remember the Titans” may no longer exist, it lives on in the memories imbedded in a community that enjoyed everyday life in its shade.
“It was a sad day,” Robinette said, “but at the end of the day, I can always remember that I was the only one who cut that tree down.”