New England's oldest elm tree to be chopped down

After surviving numerous bouts of Dutch elm disease, the 240-year-old Maine elm tree known as "Herbie" finally succumbs.

AP Photo/Steven Senne
Frank Knight stands in front of the elm tree known as Herbie. Mr. Knight, took care of the tree for about 50 years while working as the Yarmouth, Maine, tree warden.
AP Photo/Steven Senne
The elm tree is estimated to be over 225 years old and weigh about 10 tons.

The massive elm tree that shaded the corner of East Main Street and Yankee Drive wasn't doing well. Like so many others in so many of America's towns in the 1950s, it was stricken with Dutch elm disease.

Tree warden Frank Knight was so smitten with the tree that he couldn't bear to cut it down. After all, it had been standing sentinel in this New England village since before the American Revolution.

Over the next half-century, Mr. Knight carefully nursed the tree, spraying for pests and pruning away the fungus, even as the town's other elms died by the dozens. As he succeeded, the stately tree's branches reached 110 feet skyward, its leaves rustling in summer breezes off the Royal River and its heavy limbs shouldering winter snowfalls.

The tree, nicknamed Herbie and acclaimed as the tallest and oldest elm in New England, survived 14 bouts of Dutch elm disease in all, thanks to Knight's devotion.

Now Herbie is weak again and Knight, now 101, says there's nothing else he can do to save the tree he's watched over for five decades.

"He's an old friend," Knight says, speaking with passion while gazing up at the tree just before Christmas. "I love that tree. There's no question. And I feel so proud that we kept him for so long."

Herbie, estimated to be about 240 years old, will be cut down Jan. 18. Knight, consulted by tree experts who made the decision, is resigned that the end has come.

American elms are as old as the nation itself.

In colonial Boston, the Sons of Liberty met under an American elm tree dubbed the Liberty Tree until it was cut down in 1775 by British loyalists. Eventually, American elms became the nation's most popular shade tree, their seeds carried westward by settlers.

The trees lined streets in towns from coast to coast.

But all that changed with startling speed because of the Dutch elm fungus, spread by bark beetles, beginning in Ohio in the 1930s. Diseased trees were quickly eliminated to save surrounding trees.

As Dutch elm disease arrived in Yarmouth in 1956, Knight was already middle-aged — married and with a son, running a logging business — when he was named tree warden.

Saving Yarmouth's elms seemed an impossible task.

Because elms had been planted in rows along streets, and because their roots became intertwined, one tree could quickly infect its neighbors through their roots, taking out a block of trees in a matter of weeks, says Bill Livingston, a professor at the University of Maine.

Urban trees were hit the hardest. In Yarmouth, for example, there were once more than 700 elms. Now a dozen of those original trees remain.

"These trees grew so fast and so tall that their branches would reach across the street where basically it became a tunnel," Mr. Livingston says. "When the disease came in, it eliminated all of the trees and created a completely different setting — from a shaded urban landscape into a clear-cut landscape."

In the early days, the pesticide DDT was used to kill the bark beetles. Later, fungicides injected directly into the trees' roots had some success.

Knight quickly learned he couldn't save all the elms, so he focused his efforts on one special tree.

Its trunk was straight, and its limbs reached so far toward the heavens that its proud canopy, 120 feet wide, could be seen from miles away.

"He was such a beautiful tree. That's why I wouldn't cut it," says Knight, resting at home in his favorite chair, family photos on the wall and two clocks ticking away the time.

He instructed a crew to selectively prune away the damaged limbs. Over time, as the other elms succumbed, this tree somehow survived. And Knight's devotion grew.

Knight checked on it weekly, sometimes daily. His wife, Fran, didn't mind sharing his affection.

"My wife says, 'If that tree's name was Suzy, I'd be real jealous.' But she loved Herbie as much as I did," says Knight.

Donna Felker, who grew up in the house that shares Herbie's shade, is credited with naming him. One girlhood summer, wood cutters preparing to trim away more diseased limbs encountered Ms. Felker and her friends.

"'What are you going to do to Herbie? You can't cut Herbie,'" she recalled her friends' protesting.

She remembers that the tree was a giant, even back then — so big that her parents feared that it might take out their house if it fell. But it would have cost too much to cut him down, so Herbie prevailed.

Over time, Herbie became a celebrity, nearly as famous for his ability to survive Dutch elm disease as for his massive height and canopy. Local schoolchildren learned about Herbie. Tree lovers from the world over came to see him or have their picture taken with him, Felker says.

Knight remembers the time police checked out a gathering of young women around Herbie. They were trying to see how many people it would take to give his more than 20-foot circumference a hug.

"We used to say it took a family of five to hug Herbie. If you held hands around that trunk, and I've done it, that's what it took," says John Hansel, founder of the Elm Research Institute in Keene, N.H.

A tree the size of Herbie doesn't come down with a single cut and a shout of "Timber!"

Since Herbie's trunk alone weighs about 10 tons, a crane will assist as he's carefully dissected, one massive limb at a time, says Ted Armstrong, arborist with Whitney Tree Service, which is handling the job. After he's cut down, Herbie's true age will be revealed once the rings are counted at his base.

Herbie won't be hauled to the woodpile.

Instead, his remains will be kiln-dried in a mill. He'll eventually be transformed into salad bowls, Christmas ornaments, and furniture. The total cost of his removal will be about $20,000.

A committee overseen by the new tree warden, Deb Hopkins, has been deciding how to divvy up Herbie's remains. Some of the wood will go to local artisans.

Some will be auctioned, with part of the proceeds going to the town tree trust. Eventually, Hopkins hopes to build the tree fund to $200,000, with some being used to plant disease-resistant elms.

Knight has made his peace with his old friend's fate.

"I don't want anybody to grieve when I go," he says. "Just be glad I could do what I did while I was here."

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