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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Friday, July 23, 2010

Relics of the Washington Elm

Though the Washington Elm beside Cambridge common died in 1923, there are remnants and relics of it everywhere in America. Seedlings from that elm tree were planted in many other places, such as the University of Washington; Rochester, Minnesota; and the state capitol grounds in Nevada and Texas.

(Washington, D.C., claimed its own “Washington Elms” on the Capitol lawn, supposedly planted by George Washington himself as he was viewing the city’s construction. Or perhaps they were already planted and he stood under them. The traditions are unclear, and unsupported by documentation.)

A lot of the wood trimmed from the Washington Elm’s branches over the years, and what was left when it died, was turned into souvenirs. Some of these relics are just scraps of wood. Others are carved artifacts, such as a bench in the Cambridge library and “a carved circular box” that resident and researcher Robert Winters has shared on his website.

Gavels were an especially popular thing to make from the elm. In 1899 the Masonic Grand Lodge of Massachusetts received a gavel with its head made from the Washington Elm. Shortly after the tree fell, Alice M. Longfellow, daughter of the poet, gave a gavel made from its wood to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Another was given to Gen. George S. Patton in 1945. Yet another is in the Henry Ford Museum. And dozens have probably been lost in state houses since the mid-1920s.

Even the phrase “Washington Elm” retains a little resonance: the student newspaper at Washington College in Maryland is named The Elm.

So what meaning do those trees and pieces of wood and memories hold now that most people who do the reading no longer accept the Washington Elm tradition? Are they like religious icons, inspiring respect for what they represent even if people have told dubious stories about them? Or are they evidence of American civic idolatry, built on a foundation of sand?

I think those items deserve to be recalled as Revolutionary relics. But not because of Washington.

TOMORROW: The solidly documented history under the Cambridge elm.

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