Cutting down a huge elm tree in 1930 was easier said than done

Few people under the age of 60 will remember the elm trees that were an integral part of our local landscape in the first half of the 20th century.

During the 1960s Dutch elm disease devastated the trees, removing forever the umbrella-shaped specimens that lined many roadways and presented a magnificent silhouette on the horizon.

Elms were the largest of our native trees, and could live for hundreds of years. They were slow growing, and their wood was a tough material to cut or chop. The pioneers dreaded dealing with them, and usually left them rather than attempt to chop them down.

Early outdoor photographs of our towns and countryside, taken in the late 1850s and 1860s, often show huge elm trees. Logging crews usually worked around them because they were too big and tough for the poor quality axes and saws that were the tools of tree clearing crews.

Those early photographs show trees, by comparison to nearby buildings, that must be at least 150 feet in height, and are easily five feet in diameter at the base.

Eventually most of those original-growth trees succumbed to the axe and to the diseases of old age. The wood, though not of top quality, was good for inexpensive furniture, and a single tree could yield a lot of it.

Furniture manufacturers in Wellington County readily purchased elm logs at the beginning of the 20th century, and finishers would attempt to disguise it as one of the more desirable woods. Much of it was used in the manufacture of the boxy and uncomfortable mission-style furniture popular in that era.

As well as those huge original growth elms, younger trees grew to maturity in woodlots and along fence lines everywhere, and those are the trees that are in our memories. Some grew to substantial size, but none ever matched the height and breadth of those original elm trees.

From the beginning many people admired the big elm trees, and there were a number of property owners who insisted that the big old trees remain. That sentiment pre-dated the original conservation efforts of the early 20th century. Even so, the huge elms were on borrowed time. They fell victim to various diseases, cultivation practices that harmed their roots, and even lightning strikes. Often the highest objects in the area, they were sitting ducks during electrical storms.

One of the last of the big elms grew on the farm of John Arnold in Maryborough Township. In 1929 Arnold noted that the tree was dying. He made plans to remove it during the coming winter. Arnold was very fond of the tree, but he was also a practical man. He realized that if he waited for it to die, rot and insect damage would quickly set in, and render the tree worthless as a source of hardwood.

Arnold planned to remove the tree in January and February of 1930, when the ground was frozen. Cutting it down proved to be more of a chore than he anticipated. Several sawmills in the north of Wellington declined the job. The owners told him that the tree was too big for them to handle safely, and that even if they could fell it, the logs would be too big to be processed by their saws. They also saw difficulties in transporting the logs.

Eventually Arnold found someone willing to accept the challenge. W.R. and R.K. Hamilton did not have a lot of experience handling large trees, but the job intrigued them, and they felt confident that they could undertake the work.

The Hamiltons showed up with a seven-foot two-man crosscut saw, of the type used by loggers in British Columbia. Cutting through the tree was a long, laborious and back-straining chore, but eventually they cut through the elm far enough that it fell to the ground. The crash, reportedly, could be clearly heard more than a mile away. After that there was a lot more cutting. The smaller limbs had to be removed, and the trunk itself cut into 12-foot lengths.

While the Hamiltons worked away on the monster tree, Arnold found a buyer for the wood. George Swallen operated a sawmill in Clifford. He said that he would be able to handle the cutting up of the logs, and that he had a crane and large trucks available that could transport them to his mill. He had contacts with various buyers of wood. He made a deal with an English firm that wanted to use the elm in the making of furniture.

By late April Arnold had the big logs on skids, ready for shipment. The trunk was now in eight pieces, each 12 feet in length. The largest four pieces were all over five feet in diameter at both ends. The smallest piece measured a little over three feet in diameter at its short end, which, when the tree was standing, was about 100 feet in the air.

Beyond that the tree had branched out, and the trunk became much smaller. As well, the branches meant that the upper portion of the tree was less useful as a source of wood for furniture. Some of the branches were sufficiently large that they provided more wood for shipment to the furniture maker after Swallen’s mill had cut them into boards.

The smaller limbs were cut into firewood. The unusable portions of the tree yielded a half dozen full cords of wood.

The tree provided a considerable windfall for John Arnold. That brought out a number of critics, who claimed that the tree was not in bad health as Arnold claimed, and that his motive was pure avarice. Those knowledgeable about trees, though, sided with the owner.

Many local residents were curious about the age of the tree. A couple of them volunteered to count the rings on the stump. That was not an easy chore. Saw marks obscured some of the rings, and others were so small and close together that they were difficult to identify. After a few hours, a couple of determined men came up with the tally: 376.

That meant that tree sprouted about 1550, when Mary I was on the throne of England. Champlain’s activities in Canada were still more than a half century in the future, and no white man had yet been anywhere near the tree in what would become, about 300 years later, Maryborough Township.

It appears that no photographs exist in public collections of the end of that tree, either when it was still standing, or when the logs were piled up ready to go to the sawmill. One may yet turn up, buried in an old box of family photographs.

The age of the tree gave pause to many people, causing them to reflect on the passage of time and to consider how much had been lost during the settlement of the area. Some expressed doubts that Wellington would ever again boast trees of that size and age. As it turned out, those fears were all too prescient.

There are still elm trees in Wellington, but few seem to survive past their juvenile years. Occasionally there are stories of disease-resistant elms, and people keep their fingers crossed that elms may once again prosper locally.

But even if they do, no one alive today will live long enough to see a fully mature elm growing in our midst. 


Stephen Thorning