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When every town had its Elm Street

Witold Rybczynski is the author of numerous books, including "A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century."

When Charles Dickens visited New Haven during his 1842 tour of the United States, he thought it one of the most beautiful cities he had ever seen, “a kind of compromise between town and country; as if each had met the other half-way and shaken hands upon it.” This bucolic effect was largely the result of the city’s streets, which were lined with lofty, spreading trees -- American elms. The trees had been planted between 1786 and 1800, during the so-called Great Planting, when a civic-minded citizen, James Hillhouse, initiated a beautification campaign paid for by public subscription. As a result, New Haven became widely known as the City of Elms (so, later, did Buffalo).

Today, New Haven and Buffalo are beautiful no longer. The causes of their decline are many -- the loss of industry and employment, the flight to the suburbs, the collapse of downtown. They are also no longer cities of elms. In the early 1930s, Dutch elm disease, which had ravaged Europe for the previous decade, appeared in America (the fungus brought over in logs used for making furniture). Over the next 40 years the epidemic destroyed most of the urban elms in the United States. Their memory survives in the many Elm Streets, although the name is now more likely to conjure up images of Freddy Krueger, the protagonist of an infamous series of horror films, than of the majestic Ulmus americana.

The rise and fall of the American elm is the subject of Thomas J. Campanella’s fascinating new book, “Republic of Shade.” It is remarkable that no one has previously thought to write a history of this American icon, but we are lucky to have waited, for in Campanella the elm has a far-reaching historian, a beady-eyed researcher and a sympathetic chronicler. He restricts the scope of his inquiry to New England, the region where what one might call the cult of the elm originated.

When New England was settled in the 17th century, trees were generally removed, either as the land was cleared for agriculture or as part of logging operations. Individual elms, on the other hand, were often left standing. There were several reasons for this: The tough and fibrous wood of the American elm, unlike its European counterpart, had little commercial value; unlike oak, maple or birch, elm wood was not useful for either building or boat construction. A mature elm was a large tree, so it was less work to leave it standing, particularly as it generally grew singly rather than in groves. So-called pasture elms provided shade and shelter for livestock.

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As Campanella tells the story, the cult of the elm had several incarnations. House elms -- solitary giants in the frontyard of farmhouses -- were a common New England sight. In many cases, houses were built under the sheltering tree, which typically grows 30 or 40 feet straight up before spreading into a glorious canopy. Unlike oaks and chestnuts, elms have small leaves that do not entirely block the sun from the ground below, which made them good yard trees.

Sometimes house elms were planted to commemorate family events; pairs of trees were called bridal elms. Elms were also planted in New England town commons. The trunk of a mature elm is easily 10 or 12 feet in diameter and more than 120 feet high, so these huge public trees eventually assumed the role of landmarks and civic monuments. They were also totems of a sort, usually named after the town: the Pittsfield Elm, the Great Elm of Springfield, the Great Elm of Boston Common. The Tree of Liberty, another Boston elm, was the site of many political demonstrations and a popular symbol during the War of Independence.

Campanella evocatively calls these elms witness trees. New Haven had the Benjamin Franklin Elm, which was planted on the day of the great man’s death; Kennebunk had the Lafayette Elm, which stood in front of a house where the general had stayed during his triumphal tour of 1824. But the most famous New England tree was the Washington Elm on Cambridge Common. Below its spreading branches, the story went, the general had assumed command of the Revolutionary Army, following the engagements at Lexington and Concord. The tree finally fell in 1923. Like a holy relic, the Washington Elm found a second life: Fragments were sent to state governors, gavels made from its wood were presented to the senate and house of representatives of each state, a cross-section of the trunk was sent to Mount Vernon.

The story of the American elm might have ended there were it not for an unusual event that took place in the small town of Sheffield, Mass., in May 1846. During two weeks of the so-called Tree Bee, volunteers planted more than 1,000 street elms. Thanks to a Sheffield clergyman, Orville Dewey, a friend of William Cullen Bryant, the landscape painter Thomas Cole and the gardener Andrew Jackson Downing, the isolated incident blossomed into a regional movement of village improvement, with the Elm Tree Assn. as its foundation. By the 1880s, according to Campanella, there were 23 village improvement societies in Massachusetts, 50 in Connecticut.

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The goal of the Elm Tree Assn., and many like-minded groups, was the planting of elms as street trees. The American elm is particularly suited for this function, since it has a tall, boughless trunk capped by a wide-spreading crown. A row of equally spaced elms on both sides of a street creates a vast green tunnel of dappled shade. Since most New England towns did not have tall buildings, except perhaps downtown, it was the elm-lined streets that became their chief ornament.

Campanella’s book ably straddles cultural and urban history. An assistant professor of city planning at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, he started his book as a doctoral dissertation at MIT, where among his teachers were such eminent landscape historians as Leo Marx, Sam Bass Warner Jr. and John Stilgoe of Harvard. Like Stilgoe, Campanella writes learnedly but with a light touch, and “Republic of Shade” is a pleasure to read. From the start, his prose is quite effortless: “The American elm, once the best-known and most popular tree in the United States, has a history all its own. Unlike the bison or the passenger pigeon, the elm flourished at the interface of nature and culture -- for a time, at least. The tree was a token of the native forest that yielded to domestication with grace and dignity, a fragment of wild nature planted curbside from coast to coast.”

Campanella is a meticulous researcher, but he doesn’t pontificate nor does he get swept away by his subject. It would be easy to romanticize Americans’ love affair with the elm, but he avoids this pitfall. For example, he points out that the village improvement movement had a hardheaded entrepreneurial goal. During the last quarter of the 19th century, as industrialization and urbanization boomed in the big cities, and as large-scale agriculture blossomed in Ohio and western New York state, the small farming towns of New England experienced a sharp decline. Beautification was one of the efforts to counter that decline. In short, just as most cities are doing today, the small towns of Vermont, New Hampshire and western Massachusetts turned to tourism. City people increasingly spent their summers in New England towns; their motivation was complicated. As Campanella puts it, “They sought respite from industrial urbanization, and an assurance that the lifestyle and landscape they once knew still survived. Rapid social transformation and the influx of immigrants during this period appeared to threaten the old hegemony of Anglo-Saxon New England. That culture was believed to persist in the countryside.”

White-painted clapboard houses, Colonial churches, and streets and commons shaded by elms were an integral part of the sought-after image, and when reality was found wanting, reality was altered -- in traditional American fashion. Like so many invented traditions -- cowboys, Colonial architecture, country-western music -- this one seeped deep into the popular subconscious. Not everyone was enthralled; Henry James, returning to the United States after 20 years abroad, wrote of the bosky New England town, “Having spoke of them as ‘elm-shaded,’ you have said so much about them that little else remains.”

Yet the image of the elm-lined street became so powerful that it spread across the continent, for it turned out that elms grew as well in Dallas and Sacramento as in New Haven. A 1937 survey counted more than 25 million elm trees in suburbs, cities and towns nationwide, and elm-lined streets became as distinctive a mark of American urbanism as boulevards in France or piazzas in Italy.

It was too much of a good thing. The solitary elm was never meant to grow in groups, and when Dutch elm disease (which did not originate in Holland but was merely identified by a Dutch scientist) arrived, the effect was devastating. Campanella calls it “an ecological catastrophe unparalleled in American history.” An infected tree meant an infected street; one street contaminated the next, one neighborhood the next and so on. The fungus was transported by flying bark beetles and by tree roots. At first the disease spread slowly, which was misleading, for it was particularly virulent and long-lasting. Year after year, the affected area increased. DDT proved ineffective -- and dangerous. During World War II, with the public’s attention elsewhere, the epidemic flourished unchecked. By the 1970s, Dutch elm disease had spread to the Midwest, but Campanella dates the end of the age of the New England elms to May 1953. That was when the last surviving 19th century giant, the Great Elm of Wethersfield, Conn., which had caught the disease eight years before, was removed. The stump alone weighed 35 tons. “However well intentioned, the Yankee tree planters of the past committed a grave error in planting their cherished elms as far as the eye could see,” Campanella writes at the end of this compelling history. “But what a glorious error it was! And what magic, what magnificence, their recklessness bestowed.”


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