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Carole Owens: The elm is gone, but the roots remain in Pittsfield

Old elm tree in Park Square (copy)

This 1855 photo of Park Square shows the "Old Elm" towering over a few dozen trees. The tree, which was designated in 1752 to be the center of the developing community of Pittsfield, was 128 feet tall, 28 feet in circumference and nine feet in diameter. On July 25, 1864, the tree was cut down and found to be about 340 years old.

The story of Pittsfield is a long and interesting one, but it had a slow-motion start.

Jacob Wendell is generally identified as the first landowner. It was 1738. Wendell owned 24,000 acres — almost all of what is Pittsfield today. Wendell intended to divide it up and sell it. He had high hopes for a quick profit, but it was 14 years before Captain Charles Goodrich began the work of laying out the town in 1752.

Pittsfield was uninhabited and forested. The first task was to cut and clear. Among the many trees, one stood out. When man first met majestic tree, he meant to fell it. Goodrich stayed his hand, saved the tree and designated it the center of the new town of Pittsfield.

Goodrich laid out town center with four roads radiating out from the Pittsfield Elm. North, South, East and West streets traveled south to Stockbridge, Sheffield and Connecticut, north to Fort Massachusetts, west to Albany, and east to Boston. At the crossroads towered the elm; to one side would be the meetinghouse.

Nine years later, in 1761, the first town meeting was held in the meetinghouse at the edge of the elm. The population of Pittsfield was 200, some of whom were slaves. Under the elm was a whipping post and stockades. Reserved, they said, for slaves and thieves.

Like most of Berkshire, agriculture formed the economic base of Pittsfield. However, the rivers of Pittsfield promised the power for mills and manufactories. Soon there were sawmills, grist mills and fulling mills (to make felt from wool). There were wool, cloth and shoe manufacturers.

As the Revolutionary War approached, militiamen gathered under the elm to begin their march to Forts Bennington and Ticonderoga. The Pittsfield Elm — last vestige of the primal forest — was revered and loved by Pittsfield and famous beyond Pittsfield, and yet, soon the fate of the elm was in jeopardy.

The town grew from 200 in 1761 to 2000 after the Revolutionary War. A new and larger meetinghouse was contemplated. To build it, the elm would have to go. The elm was spared by Goodrich and the first settlers “for its conspicuous beauty.” Saved the first time by a man, it was saved the second time by a woman.

In 1802, John Chandler Williams and his wife Lucretia built their mansion within sight of the elm. The impending destruction of the splendid tree — the ornament of their neighborhood — was anathema. As the ax was meant to fall, Lucretia threw herself between the ax and the trunk.

Work stopped and the matter was considered at town meeting — the elm won. At the meeting, John Williams aided the outcome by donating a piece of land to surround the elm and to be designated Park Square.

The elm survived only to be abused. Horseback riders to Park Square used the elm as a hitching post. They even went so far as to drive spikes into the trunk to tie up horses and rigs. Rocks were laid around the elm to discourage the practice.

In 1807, the elm was the centerpiece of the first Agricultural Fair in the new nation. Elkanah Watson introduced his two Merino sheep to Pittsfield from under the elm and a new Pittsfield industry was born. More than one U.S. president demanded a suit of Merino wool from Pittsfield for his inauguration.

In 1819, lightning struck and hewed a limb. In 1825, an American flag flew from the elm to welcome General Lafayette to Pittsfield. Under the elm, introduced as the Pride of Pittsfield, Lafayette spoke to a group of 3,500 people.

In 1826, James Clews, an eminent English potter had a sketch made of the Pittsfield Elm Park Square, and surrounding buildings. He used it to adorn plates in a series called “American Scenes.”

In 1836, the elm was venerated by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his American Notebook. Five years later, it was again hit by lightning, leaving a 100-foot gash. Its time was fast eroding. Even as it withered, Herman Melville wrote a passage about the elm in “Moby-Dick.”

In the summer of 1864, the tree finally was brought down. Not in greed to clear and sell, not in the name of progress to clear and build, but with reverence as the “central gem” of Pittsfield.

A local historian wrote this: “One summer morning, the whisper passed along the street that the Elm was bending to its fall … in the afternoon it lay prostrate.”

An ax was only used to control the natural fall. The whipping post and stockades were long gone, and the Pittsfield Elm was guided to the ground by a Black freedman and skilled woodsman, Sylvanus Grant.

By counting the rings, it was determined the tree was 341 years old. It was 128 feet tall and 28 feet in circumference. It was 90 feet to its first branch. To this day, the size of the Pittsfield Elm stands in the National Forestry Hall of Fame as the record.

Carole Owens, a writer and historian, is a regular Eagle contributor.

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