August 13, 2011

Scarborough sets date to remove Elsie the Elm

Estimated at 190 years old, the tree is the only known local survivor of Dutch elm disease.

By Trevor Maxwell
Staff Writer

In the past two centuries atop Oak Hill in Scarborough, Elsie the Elm has endured hurricane winds, long summer droughts and even a road widening project that destroyed many of her roots.

click image to enlarge

Elsie the Elm on Oak Hill in Scarborough will be cut down Oct. 15.

2011 Press Herald File

Town officials have done all they could to extend the 80-foot-tall tree's life, but annual crown pruning and fertilizer treatments aren't working anymore.

This week, the town set a date, Oct. 15, for Elsie's removal.

Officials want to cut down the American elm, estimated to be 190 years old, before its large branches begin falling and threatening the safety of pedestrians and drivers at the Oak Hill intersection.

"She represents a lot of different things to a lot of different people in Scarborough," said Karen D'Andrea, a town councilor. "She really is representational of the strength of our community because she has withstood Dutch elm disease, and having half of her roots cut off."

D'Andrea created a Facebook page to honor the tree, and she serves on a committee that will decide how to celebrate Elsie, and what to do with the wood after the tree comes down.

The tree at the corner of Route 1 and Gorham Road was formally named Elsa in 1992, after the lion in the movie "Born Free," and it was designated a historic landmark by the Elm Research Institute of Keene, N.H. Locals began calling the tree Elsie.

Elsie is the only local survivor of the Dutch elm disease epidemic that killed tens of millions of elms in the United States, beginning in the late 1920s.

There will be a small ceremony in conjunction with the Oct. 15 removal, D'Andrea said. But a larger celebration will be planned for next year, when the town will plant a new elm tree at the intersection. The tree committee is considering a variety of elm called "The Princeton," which is known for its strength and resistance to disease.

As for what to do with the wood, D'Andrea said the tree committee will look to the example of Herbie, the elm in Yarmouth. Known as the largest and oldest American elm in the northeast, 217-year-old Herbie was cut down last year after several years of failing health.

"We'll be working with the folks in Yarmouth because they went through this process with Herbie," D'Andrea said. "We don't have to reinvent the wheel."

The town of Yarmouth divided Herbie's 15-ton trunk among artisans, who used the pieces to craft items including bowls, a clock, baseball bats, a guitar and high-end furniture. An auction of the keepsakes brought in $28,000 for Yarmouth's Tree Trust, a group that replaces diseased trees with disease-resistant and other types of trees.

The next meeting of the ad hoc tree committee in Scarborough is scheduled for Sept. 13.

Suzanne Foley-Ferguson, a former town councilor, said the well-traveled Oak Hill intersection will not be the same without Elsie.

"Even people who aren't necessarily tree lovers, I'd be willing to bet their eyes would go over to Elsie," she said.

Foley-Ferguson grew up in Detroit on a street lined with American elms. All of them, except the one in front of her house, died as Dutch elm disease swept into the area. The single tree lived because a neighbor happened to be a chemist, and he knew how to treat the elm to keep it alive.

In the 1990s, Foley-Ferguson was among a group of people who tried to promote the importance of Scarborough's trees. The idea was to earn recognition by the nonprofit Arbor Day Foundation as a "Tree City USA" community. Neighboring South Portland and Portland had already earned that title.

"We worked on an ordinance, got a grant. Elsie was evaluated and the tree was being treated at the time," Foley-Ferguson said.

The effort lost steam, but Foley-Ferguson is proud of the work by the town's Conservation Commission and Laurene Swaney, then president of the Scarborough Land Conservation Trust.

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:


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