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March 13, 2019

Century-old courthouse tree slated for removal

Photos/Cassandra Brown
The old American elm stands in the pavement just outside the sidewalk in front of the courthouse.
Asphalt and bricks cover the root system.
This century-old postcard depicts the tree.
I find it heroic that this tree has remained vertical and alive as long as it has.
— Peter Deahl, arborist
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
For generations, it has stood silently above countless passing vehicles, pedestrians and town events, including Christmas and Fourth of July parades.

With gnarled bark and asphalt-covered roots, the American elm miraculously has survived about a century — nobody knows for certain how long — in the heart of Old Town Warrenton.

Because of the building behind it, the elm probably appears in more photographs than any other Fauquier tree.

But, the iconic elm at the base of the old courthouse steps on Main Street soon will disappear.

The town will remove the dying tree because of safety concerns.

Worried about “falling limbs or the toppling of the tree,” County Administrator Paul McCulla last month asked the town to consider cutting it down.

Peter Deahl, an arborist who owns Fine Pruning LLC of Sterling, examined the tree and concurred, recommending removal.

“By removing the Elm’s apically dominant parts over the years, this Elm is literally starving to death,” Mr. Deahl wrote in a report to the town.

“It has little root system from which to gather the water and nutrients it requires,” he wrote in a March 10 report. “From a personal standpoint, I find it heroic that this tree has remained vertical and alive as long as it has.”

“The tree also has “numerous woody parts that are decayed or possess cavities,” added Mr. Deahl, who serves on the Warrenton Tree Board. “This affects the tree’s integrity, which in turn can cause the tree to fail by losing tree parts or by the entire tree falling.”

The tree stands about 50 feet tall. At the base, its trunk measures 3 feet in diameter and 10 feet in circumference.

Although the elm again has produced buds, the tree’s canopy will not have enough leaves to create energy, he said in an interview Tuesday.

“It’s a very interesting tree, and people have seen it for years and years,” Mr. Deahl added. “It’s amazing due to its location that it’s still growing leaves at all.

“The fact that this tree is growing out of asphalt shows how strong it is.”

Starting in the 1800s, elms lined the streets of American towns and created cathedral-like canopies. But, Dutch Elm Disease arrived in the 1930s and began killing most of the trees.

But, Mr. Deahl believes the courthouse tree avoided the disease.

“I have not seen anything that would lead me to believe that’s why it’s failing,” Mr. Deahl said. “If it had, it would’ve killed a tree in a very short period.”

The elm’s removal, no doubt, will sadden many in the community.

“We never want to take a tree down,” Interim Town Manager Brandie Schaeffer told the council Tuesday night. “We are not happy to see a tree go, but in an urban environment, safety is important.

“We are going to ensure that when the tree is taken down it’s given the most opportunity for reuse. Potentially in benches or other things.”

Councilman Bob Kravetz (Ward 4) suggested donating part of the tree to those in need of winter firewood.

Mr. Deahl recommends planting an ornamental tree across Courthouse Square on town-owned property near The Fauquier Bank as a replacement.

Because of the location that probably will require closing part of the street, removing the elm will cost $1,500 to $3,000, the arborist said.

The town has not decided when it will cut down the old elm.

Contact Cassandra Brown at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 540-878-6007.

Warrenton_elm_removal_Courthouse.pdf by Fauquier Now on Scribd

Court House Tree letter from Paul McCulla by Fauquier Now on Scribd

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julielinwickham · March 15, 2019 at 1:35 pm
It always makes me sad to see old trees like this have to come down, but realistically it needs to be done. SO now, how to make the best of the situation!

The idea of benches, tables and other amazing durable functional pieces being made from the tree is wonderful. Well constructed and protected furnishings could breath another 100 years into the tree smile I know the tree is only about 3 feet in diameter, but a couple, or several, 3 ft dia tables made from simple crosscut sections (with the bark) could be an option. Once cut, before protecting with polyurethane or such, one of our local artist could make the tables into timelines, labeling some of the town's and county's historical moments on the rings of the tree.

While I am not a citizen of Warrenton, but do live in Fauquier County, I would like to add, with all due respect to the person suggesting it, I am NOT in favor of part of the tree becoming firewood, even though I realize the suggestion was made to help those in need. Winter has been easy on us the last few years. There is a lot of firewood out there, for free or nominal prices. Also, we see downed trees all over the county every year. Retrieving and cutting those is also an avenue for heat purposes for those who might need help.

The suggestion of saving genes,samples and cuttings from the tree is excellent! The more beneficial projects accomplished from the tree makes it's loss seem a little less sad.
Cammie Rodgers · March 14, 2019 at 7:40 pm
ResidentB - Excellent idea! Let's contact John Hansel, Founder at the Elm Research Institute, 11 Kit Street, Keene, NH 03431 - The Liberty Tree Society (603)358-9820 - Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
ResidentB · March 14, 2019 at 2:16 pm
Whoa! Genes in this tree need to be saved. Get some cuttings and root them before it is too late to study this specimen and any possible resistance it might have that helped it survive this long. Perfect time of year to get cuttings, too. When is the tree actually coming down? I'd like to get come cuttings if no one else in interested.
brandonj · March 13, 2019 at 9:04 pm
Perfect occasion for a roundabout!
Cammie Rodgers · March 13, 2019 at 3:36 pm
A poetry contest for the Fauquier County School students would be neat. "Old Elm Speaks" as the title - they come up with the rest.
Cammie Rodgers · March 13, 2019 at 3:28 pm
Heroic is an apt word to describe that old Elm tree after years of abuse.

"Have you ever really wondered
When you looked at an age old tree
How many different changes
It could tell- If it could see?

Was it just a sapling
When the buffalo were free
And the prairie grass grew so tall
It looked like a giant green sea

Was it there to watch the settlers
As there wagons plodded past
Was it almost cut down in its prime
To be a boatmans mast?

perhaps its been a shelter
For young lovers in their teens
Who may have carved their initials
So that the letters still can be seen

Could it tell who built the roadway
That runs along its side
How many birds and squirrels
Has its branches helped to hide

How many glorious sunrises
How many settings suns
If only it could tell us
We might know from whence we come."

by Ron Nicely
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