'Nothing lasts forever': Yarmouth centenarian accepts demise of tree he fought to save

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YARMOUTH — The man who relentlessly battled to save Herbie, the stately elm tree on the corner of East Main Street and Yankee Drive, says he is at peace with the decision to let nature run its course.

At 101, former tree warden Frank Knight said it’s time to stand aside as Dutch elm disease takes over what is believed to be the oldest elm tree in New England. Herbie stands about 110 feet tall and Knight said it has to be nearly 240 years old.

Herbie is scheduled to be cut down next week.

“Nothing lasts forever,” Knight said. “I thank the good Lord every night I was able to keep him around as long as he was.”

To save the legendary tree, Knight and his crew meticulously cut out diseased limbs for five decades. He said at one time Yarmouth was home to nearly 700 elms, but the Dutch elm fungus spread by bark beetles has killed all but a dozen original trees.

“I took the post as tree warden in 1956 and we lost the first elm in 1957,” he said. “I think we lost about 100 a year for the next 10 years or so. But, we planted over 1,000 different trees during the time I was the tree warden.”

He said he loved being the tree warden, and it was something he did for free. When a selectmen at the time told him Dutch elm disease was spreading and the state needed a representative, he took the job. It was a job he held for five dozen years.

“The Dutch elm is a disease like a cancer,” Knight said. “It spreads, but sometimes you can save it. People said we had to tear him down, but I thought I would give it a try. It worked quite a few times, but now he’s coming down.”

Knight retired as tree warden a few years ago, and his friend Debbie Hopkins has taken over as tree warden.

Hopkins said Herbie must come down to avoid contaminating other trees in town. But the plan is to preserve the tree’s legacy by creating art from its wood. She said it will cost about $7,000 to remove the tree and $14,000 to have the wood milled and dried. Then, locals artists can create memorabilia from the salvaged wood.

The money raised will benefit the Yarmouth Tree Trust to help plant disease-resistant elms and other species.

Knight said he will visit the work site on Monday, but won’t stay too long.

“I don’t know why I am so attached to that tree,” he said. “It is just such a wonderful friend. I’m so lucky he was around for as long as he was.”

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

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Yarmouth tree warden Debbie Hopkins, left, and the former warden, Frank Knight, want to preserve the legacy of Herbie, a 240-year-old elm tree scheduled to be cut down Jan. 18. With the help of local artists creating items from the wood, Hopkins will set up a tree trust so more trees can be planted throughout the town.

Farewell to Herbie

Herbie’s removal is planned for Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 18 and 19. Route 88 in Yarmouth will be closed to vehicle and pedestrian traffic between Main and East Main streets from 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and detour signs will be placed along the work zone. Volunteers and town staff will be available to guide spectators.

Maine Forest Service and Project Canopy staff will be present at the tree removal at 8 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 18. Forester Peter Lammert will officially count the tree rings to determine Herbie’s age and senior planner and Project Canopy coordinator Jan Ames Santerre, along with Laura Zitske of the Pine Tree State Arboretum, will be available to answer any questions from the public about tree biology, Dutch elm disease, its treatment and the handling of wood for re-use.

To learn more about the Herbie project or for additional questions, visit yarmouth.me.us and click on the Herbie Project, or call tree warden Debbie Hopkins at 846-9311.

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