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R.I.P. Herbie: Yarmouth's 'monster of a tree' inspires to the very end

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R.I.P. Herbie: Yarmouth's 'monster of a tree' inspires to the very end

YARMOUTH — The largest American elm tree in New England, affectionately known as Herbie, came crashing to the ground Tuesday morning.

The majestic tree grew for more than 200 years and was removed in a little over five hours. A few dozen onlookers and news crews watched quietly, as falling snow shrouded the neighborhood in a blanket of white.

Herbie stood on the corner of East Main Street and Yankee Drive and was 110 feet tall. The tree's canopy spread 120 feet wide and his trunk measured 23 feet around. He battled Dutch elm disease for 50 years, but lost the fight on Jan. 19.

Frank Knight served as the town's tree warden for 50 years, and saved the tree 14 times from destruction. He sprayed with pesticides, inoculated the trunk and cut off diseased branches. But Knight, 101, said he accepted it was time to let his friend go.

Tuesday morning he said there is a time for everything, and Herbie's time had come.

"It is the time for him to go, and I'm just grateful he was around for as long as he was," Knight said. "It's his time now, and soon it will be mine."

Donna Felker grew up in the house closest to Herbie and gave the tree its name. Like Knight, Felker said all things must come to an end.

"It is an eventuality for everyone, but I am going to miss it," she said. "The house will be hotter now in the summer and there will be more noise from the highway. Wildlife will have to find another place to live and everyone will miss the pleasure of looking at it."

Knight arrived after Herbie was already a mere stick figure of his former self, but watched the tree's largest limbs being cut from its trunk. He saw its massive body pulled to the ground, and stood next to the tree's huge stump after it was cut down.

Knight's son, 68-year-old Dick Knight, said he grew up hearing about trees – but Herbie in particular.

"My diet was made up of trees for breakfast, lunch and dinner," the younger Knight said. "It was the discussion at every meal and all the time."

Like his father, Dick Knight worked in the wood business. Frank was a pulpwood and land contractor and Dick was in the pulpwood and Christmas tree business.

Dick Knight said it was poetic that Herbie was scheduled to be removed Monday, Jan. 18, but a snow storm delayed the plans.

"Mother Nature always has the final say," he said.

The snowfall Tuesday morning did not deter Whitney Tree Service of Gray from removing the tree a little before noon.

Matt Jackson, Whitney general manager, said his crew of nine removed some limbs last Thursday, which made Tuesday's job easier. They started at 6 a.m.

Maarten Zeaan operated the crane that plucked the massive branches from its trunk and placed them gently on the ground. Brandon Brewer was in the bucket 100 feet in the air cutting pieces off the giant elm.

"It was exciting to be up there," Brewer said. "I've been up that high before, but this has such historical value. It is a monster tree."

Dean Cornish of Topsham came to watch Herbie's removal. As an arborist and a member of the Topsham tree committee, he said he wanted to see the progress the crew was making.

Suzanne Chinatti travelled from Connecticut to witness Herbie's last day. She said Frank Knight's dedication to save the tree was inspiring.

"I think this is such an amazing piece of history," she said. "The whole town cares about this tree. I hope people can learn something from this."

Dorothy McAloney said she grew up in a house near Herbie, and came from North Yarmouth to watch his removal. Her father, Willis Reed, was the selectman who nominated Knight as tree warden in 1956.

"It's amazing to think Herbie was standing here when Maine was Massachusetts and when Yarmouth was North Yarmouth," she said. "If only it could talk and share all it has seen."

Herbie was originally estimated to be 240 years old, but after examining the rings inside Herbie's trunk, Peter Lammert of the Maine Forest Service said he believes Herbie was about 212.

But Lammert, who has been counting tree rings since he was 8 years old, said his calculation may be a little conservative.

In addition to Lammert, Jan Santerre and Laura Zitske of Project Canopy were on hand to answer questions.

Santerre, director of the Project Canopy, said Herbie held the title as the largest standing American elm in New England.

She said trees that line streets have many benefits. They help foster safe, more sociable neighborhoods, keep cities cooler, improve property values and offer habitat for wildlife.

"At its root though, it is something less scientific than all that," she said. "Trees like Herbie are beautiful, awe-inspiring and majestic."

She said she hopes people are inspired by Knight, and feel the urge to give something back to their communities. Although the felling of the mighty elm is sad, she said it is for the best, because Dutch elm disease could spread to other trees.

"Frank is realistic about today," she said. "He knows that like us, trees are mortal. They are beautiful and worth caring for, but they get sick and die like us."

To invest in the future of trees in Yarmouth, Debra Hopkins, the town's current tree warden, has created a tree trust. The trust will help pay for the care and replacement of trees and will bring in disease-resistant elms and other species.

Hopkins has also arranged for Herbie's wood to be cut and kiln-dried at Joe Sullivan & Sons in New Gloucester, so local woodworkers can create lasting memories of the tree. 

According to the Project Herbie Web site, items created from Herbie's wood will be for sale tentatively starting March 1 at Yarmouth Community Services, 200 Main St., and Estabrook's, at 337 Main St. Crafts available will include 1,000 wooden bookmarks, 400 cutting boards and 600 ornamental medallions.

"This whole process has been educational and fun," Hopkins said. "I have met so many wonderful people, and I'm proud to have worked with Frank on the project."

After Hopkins helped Knight back into her car, she turned and faced Herbie's trunk, lying in the sawdust-covered snow. Tears welled in her eyes.

"It's so sad to see him down," she said. "If it wasn't for Frank, this wouldn't be a story."

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theoforecaster.net

Final preparations

Final preparations
Photo: Paul Cunningham
Herbie's massive trunk is prepared for the final cut on Tuesday, Jan. 19, in Yarmouth.

The end

The end
Photo: Paul Cunningham
Whitney Tree Service workers are dwarfed by Herbie's massive trunk on Tuesday, Jan. 19, in Yarmouth.

He'll be missed

He'll be missed
Photo: Paul Cunningham
A message for Herbie, scrawled on a truck windshield in Tuesday's snowstorm.