The Wethersfield Elms

The following article, written by John C. Willard in December 1968, is from the archives of Wethersfield Historical Society.

Not
many years ago the presence of great cathedral arches of greenery along
New England streets in towns and even cities was as common and as
distinctive a feature as white painted houses and white church spires.
Dutch Elm Disease and the Elm Leaf Beetle have taken their toll and the
elms have been decimated. They seem to be headed for the same fate as
our native Chestnut trees.
    
The American Elm is not strictly a
forest tree, although it has a great range, extending through the
entire eastern half of North America from Canada to nearly the tip of
Florida and westward several hundred miles west of the Mississippi
River. It grows-on many kinds of soil, but thrives best in soft moist
soils, such as river meadows. There it may grow in thick stands or as
isolated specimens. It seems to do well along town and city streets,
sometimes reaching great size.
     
The common or “vase” form
is probably known to more people than any other tree. It is so
distinctive: ten or more feet of straight trunk which breaks into
several erect limbs strongly arched above, and terminating in numerous
slender, often drooping branchlets, the whole forming a vase shaped
crown of great beauty and symmetry. Another less common form is the same
as this except that there are innumerable small drooping branchlets
growing from the trunk and branches, giving the whole tree a feathered
appearance. The Oak-form is quite different. In this type the branches
spring from near the ground, some spreading nearly horizontally, others
ascending to form a hemisphere of greenery. Occasionally this rounded
head occurs at the top of a trunk of thirty or over forty feet.
   
The
tree is shallow rooted and attains its greatest size as individual
isolated specimens. These may often be found along village streets; at
least they were before asphalted streets became the custom.
   
There
are three native species of Elm: the American, White, Gray or Water
Elm; Ulmus Americana; the slippery or Red Elm: Ulmus Fulva; and the Rock
or Cork Elm: Ulmus Thomasi. These have much the same range and much the
same appearance in many ways. The Slippery Elm has somewhat larger
leaves and was well known for its mucilaginous bark, the source of
popular poultice and cough remedies. The Cork Elm has smaller leaves and
twigs have many corky extrusions or ridges.
   
storyofgrearelm_Raf_great elm-thumb-320x267-338-thumb-320x267-384.jpgWethersfield
was known as the home of many magnificent specimens of the American
Elm. It grew to a peculiar beauty in our meadows an attained immense
size along our streets. The most noted was the “Great Elm” that grew on
the east side of Broad Street just north of Elm Street.
     
No
other tree in Wethersfield attained worldwide fame. There has been much
speculation as to the age, which this tree attained, its size and
history. However, the facts are quite well known: A letter from James T.
Smith reads as follows:
      
“The branches start out about 9
feet from the ground where the tree stands is a light soil, the tree
stands by itself and shades every thing around it and has the sun all
day the tree stands 45 ft. in front of the house. John Smith was a great
uncle of mine. He went to his pasture 3 miles south west of where the
tree stands now after cattle and got off from his horse to get a stick
to drive the cattle and pulled this tree up. It was in a wet place, and
brought it home horseback and set it out. The Smiths were among the
first settlers of Wethersfield and this property has always been in the
family. This tree has visitors from all over the country.

Yours truly James T. Smith”
     
The
cow pasture was out at the present border of Rocky Hill and
Wethersfield, off Maple St. known as “Hangdog.” The letter is dated
October 26th, 1863, and another paper dated 1883 gives the dimensions of
four branches as 16’8″, 11’6″, 10’3″, and 8’7″ in circumferences. All
of these would if separate make sizeable trees. In 1905 the dimensions
of the tree are given “Circumference 3 feet from ground 26’4″, spread
North to South 130′: East to West 137′ and circumference of spread 450′,
with a height of about 125′: Age 160 years.
     
According to
our historian, Jared B. Standish, quoting from a memoranda book kept by
James Smith the tree was set out about 1758, when John Smith was 12
years old. It has always been an object of interest far and wide, as the
largest elm in the United States.  When it was about 10 to 15 years old
a heavy ice storm broke off the top, causing it to branch out in six
arms.
     
In ensuing years other limbs grew and limbs were
removed or fell from various causes. My great uncle, Stephen Willard,
was born and raised within sight of this tree and he told me that it
reached its greatest perfection and nearly its greatest size about 1850.
In 1884 a large limb fell during a storm and James Smith told his son,
Edward, (age 15) that he could have it if he would cut it up. Edward
made two and a fraction cords of wood from it.

A branch from a
main limb fell in 1903, and in 1947 a prominent arm came down. This was
sawed into three cords. The growth rings favorably correspond with the
recorded age. The luxuriant growth in the early years provably is
accounted for by the legend that the Green was rather a wet place in the
early days of the tree.
     
With so much interest in the tree
it is not strange that it was the subject of skilled attention in the
early days of surgery. In 1908 the Town appropriated $150 to preserve
the old tree. All broken and decayed limbs were cut away and knots and
holes filled with cement. One large limb was chained to another with
bolts passing through the limbs. This required a specially made augur to
bore through so great a distance. About six cords of wood were removed
with no visible diminution of the size of the tree. This was one of the
earliest applications of tree surgery, and arrested decay for 17 years.
In 1925 leakage of gas damaged smaller trees nearby and a settlement was
made with the gas company for $1,200.  It was voted to use this for the
care of the old elm.
   
Accordingly a more knowledgeable work
was attempted. More than a thousand feet of steel cable was used to
brace the long upright limbs against windstorm; the cavities were again
cleaned and filled with resilient surface material, drains were
installed and fertilizer used. At this time spraying against Elm Leaf
Beetle had been started. This work was of national interest, and
recorded by Fox News, Pathe News, Famous Players, and International
News. Pictures were sent to world’s fairs at Chicago, and St. Louis, and
Jamestown, Portland, Oregon, Omaha, and other cities.  Students of tree
from all parts of the country have visited Wethersfield to see the
historic elm.
     
This publicity gave cause to a controversy
regarding its size. The Marion, Ohio, Chamber of Commerce challenged
Wethersfield’s claim to the largest elm. This dispute waged for several
years. Really the two trees were of identical size in measurements of
the trunk, but the Wethersfield Elm was of greater spread and had much
larger limbs. Some other trees were put forward, such as the great elm
at Conway, N. H., but this was much smaller. At one time the National
Geographic Magazine proposed in an article about the elm trees that this
tree at Conway was the largest, but on Wethersfield Green there were
six trees of comparable size.
     
The first care was given, I
believe, by a man by the name of Meade; then Millane Nurseries took over
f or the extensive repairs. Later Philip Hansling and Son cared for the
tree for many years. In more recent years the Town of Wethersfield has
maintained it own tree department and William George cared for the tree
until its final removal. The hurricane of 1936 twisted off several limbs
and the tree lost its beauty, but it still struggled on until old age,
perhaps helped by the Elm Leaf Beatle (its height made it hard to spray
thoroughly) took its toll and limb after limb had to be removed.

storyofgrearelm_DepressingElm-thumb-320x260-386.jpgThe
stump was of no beauty, and but a travesty of the former appearance, so
in the spring of 1953 the stump was removed. It was quite a task to dig
a trench around the base and cut off the many large roots. William
George faithfully kept at this monumental task and finally it was ready
for removal. A special trailer had to be found to carry the stump, and
it required considerable judgment to top over the 20-ton stump and load
it on the trailer.
     
It is somewhat difficult to picture the
immense size of this tree. On account of the irregularity of the trunk
no two could arrive at the same measurements. Town Engineer, Philip O.
Roberts made the following measurements sent to the American Genetic
Association in 1930:
Elevation        Diameter        Circumference
6’__________ 10’5″________32-0
5’___________ 9’10″_______30-6
4’___________ 9’6″________29-6
3’____________9’9″               30-0
2′                      10’6″               32-0
1′                      12’6″               38–0
Ground level     14’6″               48-0
Diameter of spread 165′, circumference 518′
Area of spread 21,382 square feet.
   
There
have been various estimates of height ranging from 103 feet to 125
feet.  It thus appears that about 1850 the tree reached its maximum
height and spread, and in the following 100 years gradually diminished
in top growth, but the trunk and limbs gradually increased in girth.   
   
During
its life it witnessed the many important happenings on the Green.  In
early life it witnessed the training of the local trainband under Col.
John Chester.  Just before the Revolution it saw the mustering of his
son’s volunteers for the Lexington Alarm.  In Civil War times it
witnessed the mustering of regiments for that war.  Shortly after 1800
it saw the stage route pass on its way to Saybrook over the new toll
road. 

Mr. Standish says that John Wesley preached beneath its
shade, but I think he must have confused this with the visit of George
Whitfield, a Methodist missionary, who visited Wethersfield in 1740 and
preached under the shade of a similar tree standing on the opposite side
of Broad Street.  It was near this tree that Jared Ingersoll, royal
stamp collector, was halted and forced to resign in 1765.  The Great Elm
would have been only a small tree at that time.  It saw the building of
an “exercise” or training enclosure where Samuel Wells trained horses
for Major Tallmadge when he recruited four companies of Sheldon’s
Dragoons – local Revolutionary cavalry.
   
It saw numerous Fairs
where local produce and livestock were brought to be sold.  It saw
schoolhouses come and go.  Across Broad Street it saw the Col. John
Chester house in its prime, then its gradual decay and final removal,
also the Boardman (Crane) tavern and the Thomas Adams’ store burn.  It
saw baseball and football games beyond number.  It saw roads stoned and
asphalted, and traffic with ox carts hauling onions and tobacco to boats
at the dock.  Driving horses with buggies and surrey drove by with not a
few spanking teams with fancy rigs.  Eventually the automobile came. 
The roots on one side were cut for a sewer trench, and water pipes as
well as gas pipes.  Poles were set in its shade for electric wires,
eliminating the old kerosene lamps fostered by the Village Improvement
Society.  Well before
storyofgrearelm_HK691_obvJB-thumb-320x320-381-thumb-320x320-382.jpgthe
end of its life it saw itself honored as the theme “The Leaves of the
Tree” for a great pageant, the high point of a weeks celebration on
Wethersfield’s Tercentenary.
storyofgrearelm_HK691_revJB-thumb-320x320-379.jpg  
     
It
saw many changes in the Green itself, from a muddy goose pasture, wet
in places, to a meadow mowed twice a year by adjoining residents.  A
final grading and draining in 1927 made it into a well-kept park.  High
floods in 1853, 1936 and 1938 encircled its base; hurricanes, ice storms
and thunderstorms caused destruction.  It saw Wethersfield grow from a
country village with dirt roads to a modern town to be proud of.  It
certainly had a good life, even though it outlived its expectancy by a
hundred years.
   
Nearly opposite, as mentioned above, in front
of the Col. John Chester house there is said to have been a tree of much
the same size and shape.  It may have been as old, but it was not as
sound, for its trunk became hollow with decay before it disappeared.   
   
Another elm of note is described in Stiles’ Ancient Wethersfield as follows:
     
“In
the year 1776, the grandmother of Mr. Henry Buck was standing at the
door of her residence, built the year before, on the corner of
Wethersfield (Hartford) Avenue and Jordan lane, when an old and
earth-soiled Indian came along with a little sprig of an elm tree under
his arm.  He pleaded with her to exchange the sprig for a quart of rum,
which was at the time kept in every house in New England, and he was so
weary and pleaded so hard that her kind heart was touched and the
exchange was made.  He went off down the road happy with the rum, and
she stooping down near the house planted the sprig.  She has long since
gone to her heavenly home; and the magnificent elm on the south side of
Mr. Buck’s residence, eighteen feet in circumference and it grand old
branches spreading eighty feet above, is the outcome of that little
sprig what was planted over one hundred years ago.  It is one of the
grandest old trees in this town, and is remarkable for its many heaven
towering elms, and many times the writer has stood beneath its
protecting branches on a summer’s day, and recalled, in fancies’ sweet
imagination, the history of its planting so many years ago.” 
     
The
tree succumbed to age and the Elm Leaf Beetle and was removed some
years ago, but when Stiles wrote about it in 1904 the tree was in its
prime condition, in which the present writer remembers it.
     
Other
interesting elms were the magnificent vase shaped specimens located in
front of the residence of Rev. and Col. Elisha Williams.  This house
stood on the west side of Broad Street near the upper end of the Green. 
Williams is said to have planted these four giants with his own hands,
and they outlived his house to grace the front of the imposing Victorian
residence that Silas W. Robbins built just to the south.  These
eventually went the way of all tree and were removed, first two and then
the other two after their limbs had been cut back.  Mr. Robbins was
very choice of these trees and spent considerable money to keep them
growing as long as possible. 
     
The writer was present when
the last two were removed.  The larger tree stood to the north and
consisted of just a huge trunk some thirty feet high.  As the roots
seemed to be entirely decayed a rope was attached to the top of the
trunk and to a truck of Philip Hansling and Son.  The truck started, the
rope tightened, and the truck suddenly stopped.  Backing up the truck
started again and at a greater speed.  This time the rope tightened and
then broke.  Not daunted Mr. Hansling got a block and tackle and
anchored it to the southern tree.  This time when the truck started the
big trunk quivered and slowly edged over.  Then gathering momentum it
fell with a thundering crash.  It was then discovered why it had been so
hard to pull over.  In felling the trunk cracked open and uncovered a
solid cylinder of concrete, except for a few inches of wood under the
bark.  A pneumatic hammer had to be brought in to dispense of some
thirty tons of concrete.
     
When the National Geographic
Magazine was considering an article on the Wethersfield Elms it
mentioned a fine specimen standing in front of Wallace Willard’s house
as the most beautiful elm in America.  This was not an especially large
tree for Wethersfield, but it had beautiful proportions.  Standing all
alone, it swept skyward with slender branching limbs and a perfectly
rounded form.  Only a few years later the tree was covered with the
telltale yellow leaves of the Dutch Elm Disease and lived only a year or
two more.
     
In the Great Meadow there were many beautiful
elms standing at the ends of fields or at their sides.  They were famous
far and wide, but about 1900 they came very near to destruction.  The
river flooded the meadows to a height of about ten or twelve feet, and
then thick cakes of ice came down from the north.  A strong current
dashed these big cakes against the tree trunks and barked them with
great gashes tow feet wide and three feet high.  It was many years
before these unsightly scars healed over.  In fact I doubt if all of the
healed.  In all probability many trees were so weakened that they died a
lingering death.
     
Now, in spite of strenuous efforts to
protect them, most of the great elms that lined our streets are gone. 
Like the white picket fences along our streets they are no longer a
landscape feature of the New England villages.  The remaining trees are
fewer year by year, and it may not be long before they are all gone. 
There is one tree, now in the prime of life that is outstanding.  How
long it may be saved is a question.  It is a beautiful specimen standing
near the south end of the Green.  Its girth of 16 feet is not
exceptional, but it has a truly immense trunk undivided for thirty to
forty feet and nearly as large where it branches at the base.  Its
spread is enormous.  A full growth hard maple could be placed under it
and not even reach these high branches.  Some years ago a group of tree
climbers amused themselves in trying to throw ropes over the lower
branches to climb to trunk.  Few could even throw that high.  If it can
be saved it may become a worthy successor to the Great Elm.
     
The
writer is pleased to be able to compile this article, as he was
familiar with the Great Elm when attending the old Broad Street School,
standing across the Green.  For years he played on the Green near its
shade.  Later his father, Stephen F. Willard, became Tree Warden and he
drove many times to inspect the tree.  He remembers the first work that
was done following an aroused interest in the new field of tree surgery;
the first spraying for Elm leaf Beetle; the work of the W.P.A. and
finally the spraying for the insects that carry Dutch Elm Disease. 
Still later he became Tree Warden himself, and had charge of the tree
and its maintenance.  Then in 1927 he was entrusted with the renovation
of the Green, which it overlooked.  It was such an unusual specimen that
all who worked upon it: Neil Millane of Cromwell, Philip Hansling and
Son (both father and son) and William George took far more interest in
its well being that warranted by the pay they received.  It will long be
remembered as one of the nostalgic memories of Wethersfield.

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