As daybreak took place in Crossville this morning, all that could be seen of a once majestic treehouse was ash, smoke and very small fires where it once stood.
Last night around 10:30 p.m., county firefighters responded to a structure blaze at the treehouse on Beehive Lane. Within 10 minutes, the near 100’ tall treehouse was reduced to a pile of flames and embers.
Many in the county and across the nation were in shock of the news. Some were upset and some questioned how the fire started.
But, let’s go back in time to revisit how the “Minister’s Treehouse” came to be.
In the early 1990’s, Horace Burgess bought the land that he would build the treehouse on. A large tree on the property caught his eye. Then Burgess said he had a vision from God on how to build the treehouse.
“I turned my life over to God,” Horace said. The vision he said he had from God was a simple message. “If you build Me a tree house, I’ll never let you run out of material.” That became true.
Shortly afterwards, Burgess was ordained as a minister and went back to work on the project.
Eleven years later, what could be the largest treehouse on the planet stood tall off of Beehive Lane. It took seven trees to support the structure. The treehouse was around 10,000 square feet with 80 rooms and Burgess built it using no blueprints at all. The only thing guiding him was God’s plan for him. Burgess reportedly used 258,000 nails to build the treehouse.
Word of the treehouse spread around the community and that attracted visitors even before Burgess was totally finished with it.
He would soon have problems at the structure. After he completed a new addition in 2004, vandals struck with putting graffiti on the treehouse. Some of the writings was praising God. Many would go there without Burgess being on site. Instead of prosecuting them, Burgess would have a “coming to Jesus” talk with them.
But you could not blame people for wanting to see an epic vision come to reality. The structure was filled with stairs that led visitors to numerous rooms. Most of the rooms were empty but the view was amazing. There was a sanctuary room that had a basketball hoop on the wall in the back of that room. Maybe the showcase feature was the tower view at the very top of the treehouse. From there, visitors got a great look of Cumberland County and Crossville. The bell tower at the top of the treehouse was equipped with oxygen acetylene bottles that, repurposed as bells, chime daily.
Burgess did not stop there. He had further plants to add power, plumbing and heat in the winter time to the treehouse.
But those plans would be put on hold after a citizen contacted the Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office to complain about the treehouse.
A certified letter sent from the state to Burgess in August 2012 said a complaint was filed with them stating the treehouse was unsafe. Several officials went to inspect the treehouse and found it was open to the public, receives donations, provided advertisement brochures, and sold souvenirs to visitors. Therefore, the treehouse was deemed a tourist attraction and was required to comply with state building codes.
The following is a statement from the letter:
“(The treehouse) is constructed of used lumber that is scabbed together in a haphazard manner and held together only with nails. There are no lag bolts, support structures, or other acceptable devices to maintain the building’s structural integrity. There is also no apparent building plan. “The Treehouse” appears to be a random piecing together of rooms and floor levels around several tree. There has been no pre-emergency planning with the local fire department. If the building happened to catch fire, it is questionable if the fire department’s apparatus would be able to reach the upper levels for rescue and firefighting.”
The letter indicated that Burgess told state fire inspectors that worship services were held at the lower level of the treehouse one a week. Also, sleeping bags were found in the upper level floors indicating that visitors slept there.
Some of the code violations state fire officials found were:
- The structure is over the code allowable height by 60 feet and is 8 stories over the allowed number of stories
- There has been no registered design professional involved in the construction
- The structural stability of the treehouse is questionable.
- Floor decking is uneven in places and presents a tripping hazard.
- Many fall hazards were noted with no guard rails and no hand rails.
- Exits are not obvious or marked and navigating the building is difficult.
- There are no fire alarms, fire sprinkler system or fire extinguishers present
Based on those findings, the state fire marshal determined the treehouse presented an imminent safety hazard and ordered it closed to the public.
Burgess hoped the closing would be temporary. He wanted to bring the treehouse up to code but to do so would require a significant amount of money and almost completely rebuilding the treehouse. Burgess was already working full time as a landscaper so time to bring it up to code would be an issue as well.
A gate was put up to stop vehicles from going down towards the treehouse with a sign saying no trespassing by order of the state fire marshal. That gate would remain locked.
It its prime, the “Minister’s Treehouse” saw hundreds of visitors a year to either visit, camp, pray, or attend church service there.
A while after the state closed down the facility, Horace Burgess sold the land the treehouse was on to Glen Clark, a land developer from Monterey. Clark said he had no intentions of tearing down the famous treehouse but was developing land in very close proximity to the treehouse.
Then tragedy struck.
Last night, the treehouse caught fire and completely burned to the ground. What was a vision from God and a labor of love over years from Burgess was destroyed within 10 minutes.
105.7 News wanted answers this morning to many questions that readers had. Was the treehouse insured? The answer is simply no. An insurance policy on a structure like that would have come with a tremendous cost. Why has an investigation into the fire started? The answer is simply it happened on private land and there is no clear victim. Cumberland County Sheriff Casey Cox explained further:
Many in the county believe the fire was intentionally set. But Sheriff Cox was quick to say he has complete trust in the Cumberland County Fire Department in their handling of the issue. An investigation would have to be requested by the fire department to the sheriff’s office. Arson investigator Scott Griffin told 105.7 News today he has not been asked yet to look into it. Since the treehouse was on private land, was uninsured and there was not a victim in the incident, an investigation is unlikely into the cause.
Sheriff Cox did make a statement then to 105.7 News that came to a surprise to many. The sheriff’s office has responded to the treehouse at least 4 to 6 times a week for intruders and vandals shortly after the fire marshal closed it down.
Since the temperature was around 43 degrees last night at the time of the fire, one possible situation is that an indivudual or possibly a homeless person could have got into the treehouse and started a small fire to keep warm and got out when the fire quickly got out of control. Either way, there is high speculation it was set since no power ran into the structure and it was a clear, cool night eliminating the possibility of a lightning strike as the cause.
While the treehouse has been destroyed, the memory of the structure will always live with the countless people who saw it. A vision given to one man that blessed so many lives will always live on. Cumberland Countians and visitors from all over received a blessing from a much loved treehouse.
A fire can destroy material possessions but the memories remains forever.
The following is pictures of the treehouse from its majestic finish to the fire and aftermath of the fire: