New England bids farewell to oldest elm

Posted Jan. 19, 2010, at 1:10 p.m.
Herbie, New England's largest and oldest elm tree, falls to the ground after workers spent hours preparing it  to be cut down on Tuesday, January 19, 2010 in Yarmouth, Maine. Frank Knight, who is 101 years old and the tree's caretaker for over half a century, was among those watching. The tree succumbed to Dutch elm disease after surviving 14 previous bouts with the fungus. The massive tree is estimated to be 240 years old. Its exact age will be known after officials count the growth rings in the trunk. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)
AP
Herbie, New England's largest and oldest elm tree, falls to the ground after workers spent hours preparing it to be cut down on Tuesday, January 19, 2010 in Yarmouth, Maine. Frank Knight, who is 101 years old and the tree's caretaker for over half a century, was among those watching. The tree succumbed to Dutch elm disease after surviving 14 previous bouts with the fungus. The massive tree is estimated to be 240 years old. Its exact age will be known after officials count the growth rings in the trunk. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)
Frank Knight, of Yarmouth, Maine, 101 years old, who has been Herbie the tree's caretaker for over half a century, puts a caring hand on Herbie after it was cut down in Yarmouth, Maine,  on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010. Herbie is New England's largest and oldest elm tree. The tree succumbed to Dutch elm disease after surviving 14 previous bouts with the fungus. The massive tree is estimated to be 240 years old. Its exact age will be known after officials count the growth rings in the trunk. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)
AP
Frank Knight, of Yarmouth, Maine, 101 years old, who has been Herbie the tree's caretaker for over half a century, puts a caring hand on Herbie after it was cut down in Yarmouth, Maine, on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010. Herbie is New England's largest and oldest elm tree. The tree succumbed to Dutch elm disease after surviving 14 previous bouts with the fungus. The massive tree is estimated to be 240 years old. Its exact age will be known after officials count the growth rings in the trunk. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)
A tree worker removes saw dust from Herbie, New England's largest and oldest elm tree, that was  cut  down on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010 in Yarmouth, Maine. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)
AP
A tree worker removes saw dust from Herbie, New England's largest and oldest elm tree, that was cut down on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010 in Yarmouth, Maine. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)

YARMOUTH, Maine — Herbie, a massive tree that stretched 110 feet into the sky, captured the imagination of a town’s residents and earned the title of New England’s champion elm, was cut down Tuesday after a long battle with Dutch elm disease. It was more than 200 years old.

Assisted by a massive crane, chain saw-wielding workers on Tuesday took the proud tree down, limb by limb, as residents and the tree’s 101-year-old caretaker gathered to bid it farewell. Even with its massive limbs removed, the tree’s 10-ton trunk was so heavy that it shook the ground when it fell with a thud.

Among those witnessing the tree’s historic passing was Frank Knight, the town’s former tree warden, who cared for the beloved American elm for a half-century.

“It’s been a beautiful tree. I’m sorry to see it go. But nothing is forever,” Knight said. “It’s pretty near my turn. And it’s just a fact of life that life is going to end. And that’s for people, for trees, for everything. I thank the good Lord every day that we had him in his glory and beauty for so long.”

After the cutting was delayed for 24 hours because of a winter storm, the crew quickly set about dismantling Herbie in methodical fashion under steady snowfall Tuesday. Its top limbs were 30 to 40 feet long, as big as typical trees. The final cut that brought down its trunk was made by a man wielding a 5-foot-long chain saw.

Afterward, Knight was greeted with a round of applause as he joined a crowd that gathered around the tree’s stump. Steadied with a cane, Knight watched a state official count the tree’s rings.

Herbie had been estimated to be 240 years old. But a preliminary count of growth rings by Peter Lammert of the Maine Forest Service indicated it was 212. A precise age will be announced after the stump is sanded smooth and examined under magnification, Lammert said.

Based on the revised age, it’s now believed Herbie sprouted around 1798, not long after the 13 original colonies gained their independence and shipbuilding had taken root on the shores of Yarmouth. Over the years, generations of residents passed under the shade tree.

The tree became well known among townsfolk as one of a handful of large elms that survived after Dutch elm disease arrived in the late 1950s.

Knight, Yarmouth’s volunteer tree warden, realized he couldn’t save the town’s elms, which were dying by the hundreds from the fungal disease. So he focused his efforts on one tree — the giant elm with a straight trunk and sturdy branches at the corner of East Main Street and Yankee Drive.

Nicknamed Herbie by resident Donna Felker and her friends when they were children, the tree survived 14 rounds of Dutch elm disease, thanks to Knight’s efforts. Knight oversaw selective pruning of Herbie’s diseased limbs, as well as application of insecticides and injections of fungicide.

Over time, Herbie eventually became New England’s greatest elm — believed to be its largest and oldest, and known as much for its resilience as its grand size.

Mary Ellen Bradford, who took her 4-year-old grandson to see Herbie’s demise, said there was a sense of loss for many who live in Yarmouth.

“It’s kind of a sad day, but we have great memories,” she said. “We’ve always taken pictures of our kids in front of it over the years.”

While Herbie was big, it wasn’t the nation’s tallest elm. There’s a taller one in Baltimore County, Md., and it’s possible that a new champion elm, in Ohio, will be crowned this year by American Forests, which keeps tabs on big trees, according to Jan Ames Santerre, Maine’s tall-tree coordinator.

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