SCARBOROUGH — It’s been a good run for the old girl.
Although estimates of her age vary, Elsa the elm tree – popularly known as “Elsie” – has watched over Oak Hill for roughly 200 years. She survived the epidemic that killed many of her siblings, road work that nearly left her uprooted, and even lightning strikes.
But soon, Elsie’s celebrated life may come to an end.
Elsie has clearly seen better days from her place near the intersection of Gorham and Black Point roads. Dead limbs hang off healthy ones, and the tree’s canopy is thin and sparse.
“You don’t need to be an arborist to look at Elsie and see significant patches of dead area,” Town Manager Tom Hall said. “We’re just afraid that we’ll have to one day pick Elsie up of the road and hope no one got hurt.”
So Hall has floated the idea of ceremonially felling Elsie, similar to the way Yarmouth gracefully ended the life of “Herbie,” New England’s largest American elm, about a year and a half ago.
Mike Shaw, the town’s public works director, said Elsie could come down as soon as this fall.
“At the end of the day, people know it’s probably time,” Shaw said. “Unfortunate as it is, plant life has a peak like everything else, and Elsie’s been in decline for a while.”
Shaw said he and his crew have paid particular attention to Elsie’s health over the years. Annual trimmings and prunings were supplemented with root invigoration – the injection of nutrients into Elsie. They would also loosen compacted soil around her trunk, to better allow water and minerals to trickle down to her roots.
“She’s definitely a cut above all the other trees in town in terms of maintenance, care and attention,” Shaw said.
Shaw is also exploring placing a disease-resistant hybrid American elm in the shadow of where Elsie will have stood. He planted a few of those trees across the street four or five years ago, and said they are doing well.
Elsie was one of many elms that lined Route 1 until the mid-20th century, when Dutch elm disease infected so many elms throughout the state. Now she’s the only one left.
Hall said he suggested ending Elsie’s life at a recent Town Council meeting to gauge public reaction. There’s been little response from residents, he said, but councilors have taken an interest.
Councilor Karen D’Andrea recently started a Facebook page for Elsie.
“I thought it would be good to have a place where people could go and post their photos of Elsie along with their memories,” D’Andrea said. “That’s one of the reasons I started the Facebook page; I wanted to get that historical perspective.”
D’Andrea and Councilor Carol Rancourt have both expressed support for a public celebration of Elsie’s life. They’ve also mentioned following Yarmouth’s example by having local woodworkers craft artisan projects from Elsie’s wood.
“They’re selling pieces of Herbie in Yarmouth, which I think would be kind of nice for Elsie, too,” D’Andrea said. Sales from Herbie products benefit the Yarmouth Tree Trust, which plans to plant more trees.
In the early ’90s, Elsie was saved from certain doom by supporters who successfully persuaded the Maine Department of Transportation that she didn’t have to be cut down to make way for a widening of Route 1. Though many of her roots were removed, the town built a small rock wall to keep Elsie from tipping over.
Around the same time, Elsie got her name.
According to documents provide by Yvonne Spalthoff of the Elm Research Institute, William Stroud – one of the residents who fought to save Elsie during the widening – registered the tree with the institute in February 1992. The institute designated Elsie a historic landmark “to be honored and preserved for future generations.”
The name “Elsa” was selected, a reference to the lion in the movie “Born Free,” and a plaque proclaiming her landmark status is planted behind the tree.
Though plans for Elsie’s demise – and whatever celebrations and craftwork may commemorate her life – are still in the early stages of planning, some seem to already be preparing their eulogies.
“I’ll absolutely miss her,” Shaw said. “She’s iconic.”
D’Andrea was more philosophical.
“She is a denizen of Scarborough, and an important part of this town,” D’Andrea said. “She’s a tribute to the strength of our community.”
“Elsie,” a roughly 200-year-old elm, is the last of the giant elms that used to line Route 1 in Scarborough. Town officials say she may be on her last root, and are contemplating a ceremonial felling of the tree, possibly this fall.