J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Fall of the Washington Elm

Cambridge’s Washington Elm was in poor shape even before Charles Martyn voiced doubt about its traditional story in his 1921 biography of Gen. Artemas Ward. As the 1889 photograph above shows, the aging tree was surrounded by an iron fence, pruned of several limbs, wrapped with zinc bands, and held up with iron rods.

On 26 Oct 1923, city arborists were in the middle of more pruning when the whole tree collapsed. And right in the middle of the colonial revival, too.

The city cleared away the fallen branches and trunk, cut the wood into souvenirs, and distributed cubes to every state in the union. Workers eventually placed a plaque in the pavement at the site of the tree, and moved the granite monument beside it to the common.

Meanwhile, Irving W. Bailey, a professor of plant anatomy at Harvard, examined the trunk. He concluded that the tree had been 204 to 210 years old—i.e., that it had started growing in the early 1700s. So much for nineteenth-century authors’ awe at how the elm had been standing when British settlers arrived in Massachusetts Bay.

In November 1923, A. Gardner Bartlett published a letter in the Cambridge Tribune, later reprinted in Old-Time New England, which pointed out the tree had stood in a pretty regular line with five other elms, including the “Whitefield elm.” Bartlett theorized that colonial farmers had planted that line of trees to provide shade for the common.

In December, the Tribune published a letter from another local researcher, Samuel Francis Batchelder, questioning the notion that Washington took command under the tree as much of the American army looked on. Batchelder republished this letter as a 1925 pamphlet titled “The Washington Elm Tradition—Is It True?”, then in the Cambridge Historical Society’s journal, and finally in his book Bits of Cambridge History.

Most of Batchelder’s evidence came from Martyn’s Life of Artemas Ward, but he pounded the points home. Martyn’s analysis appeared in a footnote, but Batchelder devoted a whole essay to the topic, and made his argument from within Cambridge’s historical community. Batchelder also had a nasty way with the sarcasm. “If I point out to my little boy the crack in the parlor floor where I once lost a quarter,” Batchelder wrote, “my descendants will doubtless in time show each other the very room where great-grandfather was declared a bankrupt—but it will be the same parlor.”

Even as those researchers wrote, however, other people tried to keep the Washington Elm tradition alive. Some cities offered seedlings from elms that had been grown from seedlings of Cambridge’s elm. In 1932 a “grandchild” of the Washington Elm supplied by the Maryland D.A.R. was planted on the Cambridge common, with a brass marker retelling the usual tradition.

TOMORROW: How things look today.

2 comments:

RFuller said...

Bennett Cerf in his humor book, "Shake Well Before Using", recounts how in the 1920s Calvin Coolidge was beset by historical revisionism (read: trying to get it right...) of our nation's history, even while in the White House. While at a press conference, he was asked by a bevy of reporters what he thought of how George Washington's character was besmirched by yet another warts-and-all biography on our first president.

Coolidge looked out the window, and laconically replied,

"I see his statue's still there."

J. L. Bell said...

Yeah, my feeling is that Washington only looks better when closely scrutinized. Some of his colleagues, to be sure, don’t live up to their legends. But we don’t need cherry trees and elms and myths about public piety to admire Washington for what he’s clearly documented as doing. And his early grasping and mistakes make his growth all the more impressive.