Dutch Elm Disease

Chapter 18 -- Part 3

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For more than a century, the most famous object in Hampton was the gigantic American elm (Ulmus americana) that spread its branches over Elmwood Corner on Winnacunnet Road, next to the Elmwood House. In a 1953 Union column, James Tucker repeated three different tales relating to the origin of the spectacular tree. Mrs. Irene Trefethen Burnham, who owned the tree and who had lived in the Elmwood since 1897, remembered when stagecoach drivers veered sharply to avoid the tree's widespread, low-hanging branches. She was told by a Mrs. Paul Hoffman that her great-great-grandfather, a progenitor of the Brown family who lived nearby, planted the tree as a 5-foot sapling. Lucy Dow wrote that her grandfather said that the tree was planted by Parson Thayer to celebrate the birth of one of his sons, but Dow could not remember which one. The third story came from Reverend Roland Sawyer. He explained that the land on which the elm was standing was owned early on, and for many generations, by the Dow family, who passed down the tradition that the tree had been planted by a Henry Dow. There were two pioneering men of that name -- one died in 1659, the other in 1707. Sawyer also said that Nathaniel Weare had planted three elms in 1683, but the famed elm was always called the oldest one in Hampton, so Sawyer thought the tree was planted between 1659 and 1683. If the later date was correct, the tree would have been 270 years old in 1953. Responding to Tucker's column, Henry B. Hobbs said the elm was "much older" than the Hobbs's elm on Winnacunnet Road which had been planted in 1792. "Of that we have accurate records," Hobbs explained. Whatever its age, the huge tree became a tourist attraction, was featured on postcards, and was the subject of newspaper and magazine articles. Tucker called it "an arboreal shrine, visited each year by thousands of nature lovers and vacationers." In 1946, Reverend Sawyer measured the tree at about 25 feet in circumference at ground level; at 6 feet above the ground, it was 22 feet 4 inches. The tree's branches measured some 150 feet in diameter.

It was a shock, then, when Hampton residents learned in 1956 that the tree would have to be destroyed, a victim of Dutch elm disease. First discovered in New Hampshire in 1949, Dutch elm disease was caused by a fungus and spread by the bark beetle. The insect lived in dead elm trees or fallen elm branches, but it had to feed on a live elm just before depositing its larvae. The beetle would fly to a live tree and bite into the bark, transmitting the fungus. Often these were trees that had already been weakened by storms. Hurricanes of the early 1950s had twisted the elms and broken off branches and leaves, leaving the trees susceptible to disease. Once the tree was infected, the only cure was to cut it down and burn it, thereby destroying the fungus and any bark beetles living in the dead tree. Concerned about the condition of Hampton shade trees, the 1954 town meeting authorized the appointment of a Shade Tree Committee and appropriated $1,250 for tree spraying, but it was too late for the elm trees. The disease spread rapidly, and by August 1956, 16 Hampton elms, including the historic tree, were marked for destruction. Residents were especially disappointed to learn this news, since the tree had been threatened by the development of Leavitt Road only a year earlier. It had been proposed to extend that new street through to Winnacunnet Road, passing between the tree and the Oscar Pevear house to the east of the tree. Citizens protested the plan and the road was canceled, primarily because it would have created a dangerous intersection at the curve. Public sentiment delayed the destruction of the old elm for several more years, a situation that probably helped to doom other elms, which were infected by beetles living in the bark of the historic tree. After the tree was cut down about 1960, a slice through the trunk was taken to Ruth Stimson, who counted 176 rings, indicating the tree was not as old as people had believed. Today, hardly a healthy elm is left in Hampton or anywhere else in this area. Out of this situation came the Shade Tree Committee (it became a town commission in 1960), which oversees the care of "public" trees in parks and along roadsides. In addition to removing elms and other dead trees and planting replacement trees, the commission also has been struggling with caring for maple trees. A "bleeding cancer" destroys maples, many of which first are damaged by high winds or suffer from the effects of highway road salt.

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