An Elm Tree Named Herbie

Picture of Herbie from portland-press-herald in A Garden For All

Picture of Herbie from Portland Press Herald

When reading the local paper on January 18, 2010, I came across an article on the obituary page titled: “The Old Man and the Tree” by David Sharp, Associated Press.  It is in their memory that I share this remarkable tale with you.

The story unfolds in Yarmouth, Maine, with a newly appointed 47 year old tree warden named Frank Knight.  It was 1956 and Frank had the daunting task of trying to save hundreds of elms lining his town’s urban streets from the devastating Dutch elm disease.  Frank quickly realized that this was an impossible mission as the trees were so close to each other and the disease spread so rapidly; literally blocks of elms were dying in a matter of weeks.

Historic Herbie in 1997 in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Historic Herbie in 1997

But there was one tree on Main Street that had been standing since before the American Revolution and Frank couldn’t bear to cut it down.   The trunk was straight, and the limbs reached so far toward the heavens that its 120’ canopy could be seen from miles away.  Frank instructed a crew to selectively prune away the damaged limbs.  As other elms succumbed, somehow this tree survived.

Frank Knight & Herbie in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Frank Knight & Herbie

Over the next half-century, Frank carefully nursed the elm by checking it daily to weekly, spraying for pests and pruning away the dreaded fungus.  As he succeeded, the monumental branches continued to reach skyward, with leaves rustling in the summer breeze and bare limbs shouldering heavy winter snowfalls.  The tree, lovingly named ‘Herbie’, was acclaimed the tallest and oldest elm in New England.  Thanks to Frank’s devotion, this majestic old elm survived 14 bouts of Dutch elm disease.

Herbie Falling in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Herbie Falling

However, once again the disease returned and Herbie was too weak to fight back.  And Frank, his 101 year old faithful caregiver, said there was nothing more he could do to save the tree he loved.  “He’s an old friend,” Frank said. “I love that tree, there’s no question.  And I feel so proud that we kept him for so long.”

Frank at Herbie's Trunk in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Frank at Herbie’s Trunk

Dear Herbie was cut down on January 18, 2010, at the age of 217.    As his trunk alone weighed about 10 tons, a crane assisted as he was carefully dissected.  And Herbie wasn’t hauled off to a woodpile, but rather his ‘remains’ were kiln-dried in a mill and transformed into ornaments and furniture.  However, a portion of Herbie’s wood was reserved for the hand crafted casket of his loyal caretaker, Frank Knight, who was buried on May 14, 2012, at the age of 103.

Rest in peace, Herbie and Frank.  Your spirits will live on in the hearts of tree lovers everywhere.

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