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Stumped in Scarborough: Town sees little demand for wood from historic elm

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Stumped in Scarborough: Town sees little demand for wood from historic elm

SCARBOROUGH — The final piece of Elsie – the stump of what was one of the town's last giant elms – was pulled Wednesday, erasing from the Oak Hill landscape all that remained of the beloved tree that stood for about 150 years.

Meanwhile, most of Elsie – sliced and diced last year into boards and chunks – remains in storage because artisans haven't expressed as much interest in the wood as the town had hoped.

It took a small team of town workers about a half an hour to pull the stump out of the  ground with a backhoe, digging around the gnarled roots until it could be pried out of the ground.

"A stump is nothing but wood, rocks and dirt," said Josh Roy, operations supervisor for Scarborough Public Works. "Once we actually got into it, it was a quick job."

By the early afternoon, the area had been loamed and reseeded.

Elsie was gone. 

Elsie stood near the intersection of U.S. Route 1 and Gorham and Black Point roads. The town last year determined the dying, 200-foot-tall tree was a danger to motorists and pedestrians in Oak Hill.

Elsie was believed to have been struck by lightning several times. She suffered the loss of nearly half her limbs when Route 1 was widened, and many thought she may have succumbed to Dutch elm disease, although post-mortem testing found no signs of the tree-killing disease.

When Scarborough felled Elsie last October, the plan was for the silent giant to live on in the turned products of woodworking artists and craftsmen. The funds from the sale of Elsie's wood was to fund tree-planting in town. 

Elsie's stump was taken to the Public Works facility on Washington Avenue, where the rest of the wood milled from the giant elm sits in storage. Mike Shaw, Public Works director, said there's been little success getting wood-turners and crafters to take the material. 

"We had an initial flurry of interest, but it's slowed right down," Shaw said. Elsie was taken to Hillside Lumber, which milled the giant tree into usable planks and "cookies," large cross sections of the tree's stump and larger limbs. 

"There's a lot of people who might want a finished product from Elsie," he said. "There are fewer with the interest or capability to turn a product."

Craftsmen can buy the wood outright, or purchase it on commission, with the profit from whatever finished product divided by the town and the artist. Scarborough had hoped to create a buzz similar to what Yarmouth created with its slew of woodcrafts made from its own famous elm, Herbie.

Elsie's wood is clean and, for the most part, dry. But because of Elsie's poor health, it's not free of imperfections. Long cracks recede into some boards, making them less desirable for large-scale projects. 

Still, Shaw is convinced that if woodworkers give it a shot, they'll turn a nice product. 

"Look at the size of this beam," he said, placing his hand on a plank of wood, 5 or 6 feet long, with a profile the size of an old metal lunchbox. "You could do a lot with that. That could make a lot of bowls. It's just a matter of getting the word out."

Town councilors recently got a look at one of the first pieces of Elsie memorabilia –  a police baton fashioned by Scarborough Officer Donald Laflin. The baton, and a commemorative plaque, are on display at Town Hall. 

Shaw has also started to do more focused outreach. He said the Southern Maine Woodturners Association recently agreed to pick up some Elsie lumber.

The town will also use some of the wood, including for the construction of a couple of benches for the lobby at the new Wentworth Intermediate School. 

"It's a lot of elm," Shaw said. "Now it's just a matter of getting the word out."

Artists, craftsmen, furniture makers and any other woodworking enthusiasts can contact Shaw at mshaw@ci.scarborough.me.us for information on obtaining pieces of Elsie.

The town plans to plant another, heartier elm, where Elsie stood this fall. 

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @theforecaster.