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Article Published July 3, 2018
The Centennial Elms: Where Are They Now?
Kathy Connolly

On July 4, 1876, eight citizens of Old Saybrook held a town meeting to declare they would plant 56 American elms in honor of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence.

“Said trees [are] to be known and cared for by the town as the Centennial Trees,” the clerk recorded in Volume 8, page 159 of the records book that resides today at the Town Clerk’s office.

They reconvened in October 1876 to record their purchase and planting.

Elms were the street trees of choice throughout New England and the rest of the emerging nation.

There were no power and phone lines to contend with, so planters often used a 40-foot interval between trees. The elms, native Ulmus americana, grew to form magnificent “cathedrals” that some still remember and those too young to remember admire in old photos.

One hundred forty-two years stand between us and the patriotic gesture of that Centennial Tree committee. Dutch Elm Disease, the Hurricane of 1938, and other challenges took most of the trees.

Miraculously, five have earned the status of survivor trees. We know because the Centennial planters carefully noted the exact locations of their saplings in Volume 8, page 159.

One, for instance, stands 80 feet tall on Old Saybrook’s Main Street, at the edge of modern town green and sidewalk near today’s firehouse. When the tree took root in 1876, Main Street had a scattering of small homes and shops, and working farms spread out behind the Main Street addresses. Village transportation was horse-drawn, though the railroad station was not far from the center of town.

By 1910, a trolley ran down Old Saybrook’s Main Street alongside automobiles, while horses were ever fewer. A 1911 photograph shows a car parade rolling past the new Town Hall. Utility poles and phone lines had come to town. There were sidewalks.

A Nasty Disease

Town development continued apace.

Then Dutch Elm Disease (DED) began its nasty work in the early 1930s. A few years later, the Hurricane of 1938 felled millions of trees all over New England. Elms that survived the storm were more vulnerable to DED than ever, as the disease-carrying insects loved to burrow into damaged limbs.

Despite years of scientific research, it is still not entirely clear why a few elms avoid DED for a very long time and others do not. Immunity is never absolute, though. Recognizing this, the Town of Old Saybrook began preventative treatments for DED by the late 2000s. The tree is still vulnerable to storms, of course, not to mention the problems that plague all street trees—traffic, safety concerns, heat, drought, and changes in land use.

What of the other four survivors?

One is on private property. The remaining three are all easy to find on Route 1, located in front of McDonald’s on Route 1 near the Ingham Hill Road intersection, in front of the Saybrook Country Barn at Route 1 and Main, and in front of Ocean Performance on Route 1 near Springbrook Road.

Lessons Learned

Some ask: Should we aim to recreate the leafy cathedrals of old?

It’s tempting, because, finally, disease-resistant elms have come into their own. But the trees are only part of the formula. Village density, embedded structures, and utility poles make this idea all but impossible in today’s world. New elm cathedrals are best created in parks, if anywhere.

The elms taught us that when we concentrate one species in an area, they can succumb en masse when new threats arrive.

Today, most arborists would recommend planting multiple species—but we can still choose tall trees. While mixed stands may not have the grace of an elm cathedral, tall trees excel at cleansing air and water, buffering extreme heat, saving building energy, and—perhaps most important in an urban setting—managing rainfall. Some people resist tall trees for the dangers they pose. Most arborists would counter that good tree care can manage the dangers, while shorter specimens have less to offer.

Lucy Larcom, a well-known 19th century New England author and teacher, famously said, “He who plants a tree, plants a hope.”

I would like to offer a new spin on her affirmation in light of the future new trees will encounter. “When we plant a tree, we plant a classroom. Let’s study well.”

Kathy Connolly thanks local historians Barbara and George Maynard, Tedd Levy, and photographer Robert Lorenz for assistance with this article. Kathy is a landscape designer, writer, and speaker from Old Saybrook. Reach her through her website at www.SpeakingofLandscapes.com.