Photos: A Giant, Dead Elm Tree Comes Down To Support Dutch Elm's Disease Research

Nov 2, 2016

One of the largest remaining elm trees in New England has died. But the wood from the 109-foot-tall slippery elm tree is heading on to a new life — as custom furniture. And a percentage of the sales proceeds will support research to breed elms that are resistant to Dutch elm's disease. 

The fungal disease — carried by an invasive insect — killed millions of stately elm trees across the country beginning in the early part of the last century.

The Nature Conservancy researchers first learned of the massive elm tree in Charlotte last year. They were hoping to visit the tree and take a pollen sample, to breed this tree's genes with others in effort to grow elms that are disease-resistant.

Before researchers could take pollen samples from the Charlotte elm, the tree died, likely of the fatal fungus. But homeowner — and amateur woodworker—David Garrett didn't want the tree to be simply cut down and burned as firewood.

So he called around to find someone who could craft something out of a tree this massive. Eventually, he got in contact with John Monks, who owns and runs Vermont Tree Goods in Bristol.

"So I searched him out, and called him up, and he was here within an hour," says Garrett. "And he said, 'Wow.'"

The "wow" comes from seeing the tree tower over the three-story house. It's trunk is over 19 feet in circumference, and it takes at least four people to link arms and encircle it in a hug. The tree's crown measures 100 feet by 93 feet, an arching canopy that has shaded the home for more than a century.

John Monks, of Vermont Tree Goods in Bristol, takes a final glide on the swing before the big elm comes down.
Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR

Ordinary lumber mills simply don’t have machinery big enough to handle such huge trees. But Monks has designed and built his own chain-saw rig that can easily mill tree trunks 10-feet in diameter, and up to 24 feet long.

A second life

Monks says he’ll be able to make all kinds of things from the slippery elm in Garret’s yard, using the massive trunk and the limbs and branches.

"I see everything from the smallest coasters to cutting boards to benches, coffee tables, dining room tables, conference tables. Who knows what else?" says Monks.

Monks will donate a part of the proceeds to the Nature Conservancy's efforts to breed elm trees that are resistant to Dutch Elm disease. Monks' company, Vermont Tree Goods, makes handcrafted wooden furniture out of large-diameter trees that are generally considered useless.

Before starting the company, Monks had been a general contractor for decades. He got into this niche business after a fire destroyed his family's home about six years ago. They lost all their possessions, and so he set about rebuilding some furniture.

For the dining room table, he wanted to build it from a single slab of wood. He called a tree service and asked if they had any large-diameter logs.

"They had quite a few, and they were more than happy to sell them to me, because they had no use for them. Nobody else was using them or wanting them," says Monks.

He says the tree service companies were simply burning the huge piles of lumber every year to get rid of the stuff.

"That's what started it all," says Monks. "When I realized how much of this material was available, I set out to start milling it and processing as much of it as I could."

Almost an hour into the process, Brown's crane service has trimmed the lower limbs, and a crew is moving them onto a truck to take to the woodshop.
Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR

A valuable player in the ecosystem

David Garrett's tree is a slippery elm, and it may well be the tallest slippery elm in the Northeast, according to sources at the Native Tree Society. This tree is not as common as its cousin the American elm. It has less of the traditional-elm's cathedral-like arching; it's shaped more like a maple tree. Yet both native species play a key role in the ecosystem by providing shade for rivers and fish, and leafy food for insects. And both are being wiped out by Dutch elm disease.

Forest ecologist Christian Marks with the Nature Conservancy heads up a project that is working on breeding disease resistant trees.  

"Unfortunately, it's not a very simple story" to figure out which genes make a tree resistant to the fungus, says Marks. 

"If it was a just a single gene, it would be very easy to identify it and select on it, but it looks like those trees that have elevated tolerance to the disease, it involves multiple genes, and they have to be in certain combinations for it to work."

So far, Marks has bred some that are fairly resistant when exposed to Dutch elm's disease in his lab. Those individuals are cloned and then planted in the wild:

"You're acting like a dating service, where you're bringing different tolerant types together in place where they can reproduce and spread — and then natural selection can select for even more tolerant offspring."

To date, the Nature Conservancy has planted close to 3,000 tree seedlings in sites across New England, just under half of the ultimate goal.

Saying goodbye

A friend gives the slippery elm tree a final hug before the takedown begins.
Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR

On Nov. 1, about 25 friends, neighbors and conservationists gathered at David Garret’s house to give a hug to the ancient elm tree. And some took a final glide on the swing that's been there so long its ropes are ingrown into a low-hanging limb.

On the sunny, windy fall day, Garrett addressed the small group. "This tree, we have no idea how long it's been here, but it's been here longer than the house, and this was built around 1790, 1792, so it's at least that old. And it's a shame we're losing this," he said.

But, "we're here to say goodbye, and make something good out of it," he continued to supportive applause.

Then, the cherry picker rose up among the elm's vast canopy, and a crew member got to work, sawing off limbs with a chain saw. The process took all day, and when the Brown's Crane Service crew got down to the trunk, it required a crane and John Monks' specially designed 8-foot-long chain saw to cut it from the base.

According to the crane's weight measure, the bottom 20-foot trunk section weighs 25,000 pounds.

After a full day's work, all that remains is to make a final cut at the base of the tree, using a specially designed 8-foot chain saw while the crane lifts the trunk.
Credit Tai Dinnan / Vermont Tree Goods

Monks and his team were happy to learn that the inside of the trunk is in excellent condition, with just a bit of rot at the center, which is common in trees that age.

Now the team simply has to get the trunk to the woodshop. The crane intended for that purpose wasn't big enough to lift the two-story tree trunk onto the trunk, so for now, it's sitting upright in the front yard, a stripped-down reminder of its former self.

The crane lifts the last 20-foot section of trunk, which weighs about 25,000 pounds.
Credit Tai Dinnan / Vermont Tree Goods

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative: Eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.