Ancient maple succumbs to age, Androscoggin River in Leeds

John Nutting stands next to a toppled silver maple tree that is believed to be about 390 years old. Nutting believes the tree that grew along the Androscoggin River bank in Leeds fell after the river surrounded the trunk during the heavy rain storms at the beginning of June 2012.
Daryn Slover | Sun Journal
John Nutting stands next to a toppled silver maple tree that is believed to be about 390 years old. Nutting believes the tree that grew along the Androscoggin River bank in Leeds fell after the river surrounded the trunk during the heavy rain storms at the beginning of June 2012.
Posted July 08, 2012, at 1:06 p.m.
Last modified July 19, 2012, at 4:14 p.m.

LEEDS, Maine — At its mightiest back in 1980, the ancient maple tree at the bend in the Androscoggin River drew hundreds to its side.

“We’d make a trip once a day, when we were done milking the cows,” said John Nutting, who grew up on a farm along Campbell Road. “Sometimes, it was one of us kids. Sometimes it was my father. People would gather to see that tree, and they’d all wait until we were done, and we’d all walk down in a big group.”

His stepfather, Gerald McNear, had discovered the silver maple back behind hay fields he rented in the late summer of 1980. It took two measuring tapes to wrap go around the massive, twisted trunk — 26 feet, 4 inches.

A call to state foresters in November that year brought the experts out it droves, followed by Maine TV stations and reporters from Boston.

The trunk was a record for Maine, the largest in the state. Trunk borings said it dated back to between 1620 and 1650.

Since then, it has become a regular stop for school children, tree fanciers and kayakers along the Androscoggin River.

But now, the mighty has fallen.

Nutting said he was taking friends from Portland to visit the tree on June 30.

“It had a crook in it a few feet up,” he said. “Kids could climb right up in it.”

But he stopped as he reached the end of the field, now full of potato plants.

The massive tree was on its side.

“I was just stunned,” Nutting said.

He last saw it standing in the spring. Nutting figures heavy rains during the last few weeks saturated the soil around the tree. The Androscoggin River meanders to the west through the northern part of Leeds, then turns back south just as it passes the tree.

“I think it flooded a few weeks ago, and that was just too much,” Nutting said. “Maybe a little wind, and the tree probably went right over.”

The tree is still listed in the Maine Register of Big Trees as the largest silver maple in Maine. State and national rankings score big trees on their circumference, their height and their limb spread. The Leeds silver maple isn’t the biggest tree in Maine by those standards — and it’s not the biggest silver maple in the country. That honor goes to tree in Pulaski, Ky., that’s 17 inches narrower but 11 feet taller with limbs that spread 25 feet wider.

But judged simply by its girth, the Leeds silver maple outdid all of them. It was much wider than any single tree in Maine, with a good 6 feet on Herbie, the record setting Yarmouth American elm that was cut down two years ago.

There’s still a crook in the tree where kids can climb up, so Nutting figures it will get more visitors now. One single branch is still full of green leaves, and that branch rises up, almost above the younger trees that surround it.

And it’s not dead, not technically, according to Maine Forest Service’s Ken Canfield. A tree can still sprout leaves and green up for years on its side.

But its days are now numbered.

“It’s much more stressful for the tree, being on its side,” he said. “It’s more susceptible to disease. It can survive for a while, but its days are numbered.”

Back in 1980, when the state’s forestry experts were first studying the tree, Nutting said they discovered it sat upon a 20-foot deep layer of fertile topsoil.

“They figure that the river ran right there, long ago, and then shifted,” Nutting said.

All the nutrients in that soil are likely what made the tree grow to such huge proportions.

“So it’s ironic that the thing that helped create it and make it big, the Androscoggin River, is probably the thing that ultimately brought it down,” Nutting said.

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