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Recycling Old Tree Tales

Portsmouth's streets were once lined
with stately shade trees

Rev. Andrew Peabody Last week a beloved box elder tree in Portsmouth met death in a violet summer thunderstorm. It wasn’t lightning this time, but the force of the rain and wind that split the wandering limbs under their own weight.

This was not an "historic" tree, technically, just a unique and memorable one. A very young Geno and Michael Marconi had planted it 52 years ago in the back yard of their Puddledock home off Marcy Street. Soon after the planting, the neighborhood fell to urban renewal and Strawbery Banke Museum took its place. Last week, as state-certified arborists carved the old tree into portable bits, people watched and talked about their memories as if at a wake.

Trees have a way of shaking loose stories of the past. Any kid brought up in New England can offer some. Tales sprout like fruit from old branches and when an old tree falls, the memories it engenders may wither too.

Box Elder Tree

Sometimes the tree itself is famous. Every town has them. The battlefield at Gettysburg has a copes of trees that memorialize the "high water mark" of Confederate forces in Pennsylvania during the Civil War. This writer remembers being reverently shown the "actual Pooh tree" that inspired the writing of A.A. Milne in the woods of East Grinstead, England. Portsmouth’s infamous hanging tree no longer stands at the head of the South Street Cemetery. From its limb in August of 1768, legend tells us, poor Ruth Blay was hanged for covering up the death of her stillborn child. Minutes after the horse cart beneath her feet was drawn away, the story goes, a breathless messenger arrived too late with her reprieve from the governor.

You can tell a lot about a town by its ornamental trees. Nineteenth century Portsmouth historian Charles Brewster suggested that the first official city plantings were made haphazardly before the American Revolution. Long after the war, around 1792, Governor John Langdon introduced the first Lombardy poplars in front of his mansion on Pleasant Street. The decorative trees caught on and within six years poplars lined most of the city’s best streets – Pleasant, Court, State, Islington, Deer streets and the North End. The city government just sat back and let the citizens do the work. . The same is generally true today.

Snow on Trees

Brewster, the longtime editor of the Portsmouth Journal, recalled a massive elm in Pleasant Street, planted when Portsmouth was a royal province, that had grown to a circumference of 16 feet by the 1850s. That isn’t New Hampshire’s largest tree. In 1975 an historic tree committee officially presented that honor to an elm in Northwood. It once marked the entrance to the state’s first toll road and 30 years ago measured almost 26 feet around. Giant trees once dominated New Hampshire. Portsmouth historian Bruce Ingmire once suggested that, before the arrival of white settlers, a squirrel could walk from Portsmouth to the Hudson River without leaving the treetops. But European settlers quickly clear-cut eastern New England, selling off the tall pines for lumber and ship masts and farming in the rocky fields left behind. But trees grow back. Today, many are surprised to learn, our region is more heavily forested than it has been for the last 300 years.

But urban trees are especially precious. Modern statistics tell us that the average downtown tree lives only seven years. As a child, Brewster once wrote, he had stolen the sweet fruit of a bergamot pear tree that had stood in the yard of Daniel Webster’s home off Vaughan Street. That area has been a parking lot since the 1970s. He recalled a handsome Linden tree, planted in 1750 near the Wentworth-Gardner Mansion in the South End. In Brewster’s time it was 60-feet tall, 12-feet around at the height of a man’s head. The ancient linden was still standing – though 10 feet taller and seven feet wider -- when local artist Beatrice Pearson sketched it in 1910. Each July the fragrance of its yellow blossoms scented the entire neighborhood and the blooming event made newspaper headlines. Today it is gone.

Tree Cutting, State Street

Long before the Civil War the first of the early Portsmouth plantings had largely gone awry. Stately downtown trees were reduced to blackened trunks by a series of devastating fires. The elms had been carved to fit around the burgeoning cityscape and Gov. Langdon’s lombardy poplars were a disappointment. Brewster writes:

But beauty soon faded. The trees ran up to an elegant taper for a time; but the frost or the lightning in a few years nipped their tops. Their decapitated trunks, shorn of every vestige of beauty, sending out a seven-fold number of new shoots, had more the appearance of the fabled hydra than of the produce of Eden.

Portsmouth’s poplars were replaced by sycamores and buttonwoods that lined the residential streets. The smooth bark and lush shady leaves were all the rage. But the sycamores attracted caterpillars that chewed the leaves and hung by the thousands on invisible strands directly in the path of pedestrians. So the sycamores were executed by public decree, Brewster tells us, faster than the French guillotined the aristocracy. And in their place came the maples and the elms so popular around the middle of the 1800s. Again the public did the planting, either as individuals, or as members of the Portsmouth Tree Society.

Henry Richards is often remembered as a great tree planter in Portsmouth. When he died, the tree-lined Richards Avenue was given his name. But in 1872 the Portsmouth Journal noted an even more prolific tree planter -- Mr. Joseph Fuller of Sagamore Road. The article details the location of over 2,000 trees that Fuller planted between 1812 and 1865. The earliest Portsmouth photographs and later colorized postcards show thick tree-lined streets all around the city, thanks to Richard and Fuller and other independent planters who provided was the city did not. Local tycoon Frank Jones, though not known for his philanthropy, had a passion for ornamental trees that he had installed near his properties. Since he owned much of the area -- from his Maplewood Farm -- to the Rockingham and Wentworth hotels, the public benefited all the same.

Nature and nurture continued to conspire against the city’s ornamental trees. Those grand trees not destroyed by Dutch elm disease, were often manicured to death by man. Trimmed back by new sidewalks, carved around telegraph and telephone wires, gouged by horse carts, smothered by automobiles and sacrificed to new buildings and parking lots, Portsmouth’s shade tree population declined again throughout the 20th century. By World War II had adopted an industrial look. In 1954 hurricane Carol took three hundred trees just in the area around the Wentworth Hotel in New Castle. A popular elm on the golf course was uprooted by the storm, but four days later, miraculously, Hurricane Diane pushed it back upright.

The recent tourism renaissance in Portsmouth was a boon for its trees. From 1968 until the early 1990s the city set aside as much as $10,000 in its annual budget for city landscaping. Three volunteers directed a plan to remove ailing trees with new ones. But in the last decade, the project lost steam. There has been no annual budget for new trees and now, with the retirement of long-time volunteer city arborist Clotilde Strauss, no trained planner is at the helm. The city pays specialists to trim and maintains the trees it has inherited, fighting back aphids that lay waste to hemlocks and replacing the trees that fail amid the bustle of Market Square, but little more.

Strawbery Banke

Portsmouth still has great trees, but they must be replaced systematically to be available to future generations. Today residential streets like Lincoln and Miller and the restored Richards Avenue are truly attractive. Haven Park off Pleasant Street is as richly green as ever. The cemeteries, where we often let our trees run wild, still sport a few old- timers. The famous Whipple tree on Market Street survives. William Whipple, who also planted his signature on the Declaration of Independence, reportedly planted this massive chestnut. There are two massive copper beaches at the back of public library and a maturing white birch on the lawn of the historical society nearby.

But these random jewels appear willy-nilly while the welcoming shade trees along key downtown roads are sadly fading. The streetscape down Islingtonn, for example, grew harsh and uninviting when the trees gave way to sidewalks in the mid 20th century. Visitors gliding off the Interstate discover a flat concrete median, unadorned by a gentle row of trees that could flow elegantly up Market Street Extension. The Parade Mall area, where Charles Brewster once pilfered apples and pears, is as stark and unappealing as any parking lot. Woodbury Avenue and Middle Street nearby are slowly losing ground to the encroaching asphalt jungle.

Common sense tells us that trees have worth. Besides enriching the soul and clearing the air, they raise real estate values and attract tourist dollars. History tells us that the solution will come from a grassroots campaign.

In 1919, for example, the Plains Improvement Society raised public funds to purchase 96 rock maples to beautify their neighborhood. Twenty-four of the newly planted maples were dedicated to fallen heroes of World War I – 23 men, and one army nurse.

Middle Street, Portsmouth

Attorney Peter Loughlin, a modern day Johnny Appleseed, has the right idea. For 25 years he has been quietly growing and planting trees on Portsmouth streets. Today he keeps 400 saplings going on an acre of land loaned by friend. With the help of two sons, Loughlin continuously plans sugar maples wherever and whenever he can. Some of the first trees he planted have reached a caliper of 15 inches and a height of 40 feet. Others have not survived. He is experimenting now with sycamores and is hopeful that Norway maples can more effectively survive traffic exhaust and winter salting.

Loughlin has just joined the city’s new Tree and Greenery Committee activated by Mayor Evelyn Sirrell. The group wants to fill the city arborist position by making it more appealing. They are considering an inventory of all the city’s trees. They see the need for long-range planning, for more money, for more volunteers in the spirit of Loughlin and those dedicated tree planters from the past. They have the germ of an idea, the seed of a solution. From little acorns, we can only hope, grow mighty programs.


Copyright © 2003 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved..
Article and original photos by J. Dennis Robinson. Image of the box elder tree by Emily Lusher, Strawbery Banke. Top image of linden tree by Beatrice Pearson. Other photos by J. Dennis Robinson and early postcard from Early Images archive.


Our Readers Respond

MORE ON THE WHIPPLE TREE
The Moffatt-Ladd House was William Whipple's home from 1771, when he married Katharine Moffatt, until his death in 1785. The family tradition is that he planted the tree in the fall of 1776, after signing the Declaration of Independence. The story makes sense, because the horse chestnut, a tree native to Europe, was first introduced to America by John Bartram who planted a specimen in his botanical garden just outside Philadelphia. The species flourished and the horse chestnut trees that Whipple saw in Phildelphia would have been distinctive and unusual to him, and so it is easy to see why he chose one as a fitting memento of the momentous events that took place in Phildephia that year. Horticulturalists and arborists enthusiastically support the authenticity of the story, and feel strongly that the the tree IS 227 years old. The Whipple Horse Chestnut was designated as the Millennium Landmark Tree for the State of New Hampshire by the White House Millennium Council in 2000, and has been dubbed The Tree of Independence by the National Register of Historic Trees. School children who have come to visit the Moffatt-Ladd House Children every Spring since 1911 (when the house first opened to the public), often join hands around its massive trunk as part of their visit, counting how many of them it takes to "hug" its girth. The tree is lovingly cared for by the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of New Hampshire, who own and maintain the house and grounds as an historic house museum and garden. Each year professionals from Northeast Shade Tree in Portsmouth prune and fertilize the tree and maintain the cables that help to secure its enormous branches. You may have noticed recently that one of the Whipple Tree "children" planted on the grounds of the Governor Langdon House, recently succumbed to age, and was taken down. Another one still stands next to the Warner House in Portsmouth.
-- Barbara Ward, Curator, Moffatt-Ladd House

KUDOS 
That was an absolutely wonderful article on the trees of Portsmouth.  They are treasured gifts from nature and we should all work together to nuture them, perpetuate them and celebrate them. Thank you! --Kathy Mullins

LOCAL CRAFTSMEN SHOULD USE OLD TREES
I just read this wonderful article. (Recycling Old Tree Tales) The special meaning that certain individual old trees, or stands of trees, lend to a community is often not recognized until the inevitable happens. Often they are not fully appreciated until the "gaping hole" their removal leaves is first observed. The very character of a community may change.. witness the vast changes in the landscape throughout downtown New England with the devastation wrought by Dutch Elm disease.

Though we can not change the course of nature, there are ways to "extend the life" of some of these special trees. I would suggest that when a particularly meaningful tree needs to be removed, or when nature takes its toll, that every effort be made to bring local craftsmen to the site... even before carving it up. A furniture maker, a wood turner... Most would love to "get their hands on" this wood, and can best direct the carving-up of the tree so that it is in usable pieces for their craft. Perhaps a deal can be made between the Town and the craftsmen, whereby a "finished piece" is returned to the town in exchange for the free raw materials. Trust me, the value of some of these older large timbers can more than offset the value of a finished piece and most craftsmen would be thrilled to have the wood in exchange for the pleasure of contributing back to their community. There are craftsmen in most every town, turning out wonderful pieces of work which would make fine additions to any Town Hall, allowing a natural piece of town history to continue contributing in a new form. A signature work from a revered town craftsman on display at Town Hall vs. a pile of mulch at the Town dump.... just a thought. I wish I could have "scored" a substantial portion of that Box Elder... It turns so nicely on my lathe!
-- Steven Lear, Dir, McCabe Brenner Travel, Mclean, VA

Don't miss the column by J. Dennis Robinson in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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