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.
Wethersfield 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
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 for 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.
The 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
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 the 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.
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.
About the Author: John C. Willard