Creativity, craft keep Bicentennial Ash a living memory
1/3/12 Wilmette Wilmette forester Kevin Sorby points out some features on remains of the the Village's Bicentennial Ash. The tree was downed in the July 11, 2011 storm, but will live on as furniture, a museum display, and in educational projects done by
Updated: February 6, 2012 8:48AM
Immortality is an impossible goal for anything in this life: People die, rocks crumble into dust, and stars burn out.
But sometimes we can keep precious things alive with a little creative effort and a lot of love — less than what they had been, but more than a memory.
So it is with Wilmette’s famous Bicentennial Ash tree.
Once it towered over Gillson Park as an arboreal marquee attraction, dated in the 1970s by foresters who estimated that it sprouted before 1776. The tree, which Wilmette forester Kevin Sorby joked this week was “a monster,” rated its own plaque and was familiar to both Wilmette residents and people from across the country.
Now, only months after Mother Nature toppled it in a summer storm, the tree is destined to live on in the form of handcrafted lobby furniture at Wilmette Village Hall. Smaller portions will have pride of place at the Wilmette Historical Museum, and still other “tree cookie” slices will provide educational fodder for Wilmette area school students.
Not many ash trees in urban settings ever reach the ripe old age of 120 years that some might attain in forested areas, Sorby said Tuesday. Usually their lifespan stands in the 70- to 90-year range, and they can last even shorter periods of time than that.
“Trees in urban parkway settings can average just 30 years of age,” he said. “This tree went so far beyond that span that it was truly amazing.”
So it was no surprise many tree lovers in and beyond Wilmette mourned the venerable monarch’s demise July 11.
Wilmette Village President Chris Canning was among those who wanted to ensure that the tree would live on in some way.
“It had survived so many storms. It was older than the village — older in fact, than the United States of America — so we decided right away we had to find ways in which it could live on,” he said last week.
Canning’s interest stemmed not only from the Bicentennial Ash itself. He also had a more general concern, fueled by the continuing loss of urban ash trees — including many in Wilmette — to the tiny emerald ash borer.
Elms, then ashes
“The village suffered the loss of trees from Dutch elm disease, and now, during my term in office, we’ve suffered the loss of ash trees,” he said. “We’ve always made efforts to reclaim the wood; we’re always trying to put it into action, and this project proceeded naturally as part of that effort.”
Like Sorby, Canning knew that ash, a hardwood tree comparable to red oak, could be used in the same way as oak or other such popular commercial species as maple. That’s because Canning tested that theory successfully in 2008 by arranging to have a downed ash tree in his back yard turned into dozens of baseball bats.
And the village had already successfully used wood from some of its borer-devoured ashes to create butcher block countertops at the Public Works Department headquarters on Laramie Avenue.
Wood salvaged from the downed Bicentennial giant should be used in some similar public fashion, Canning and other officials, including Sorby and fellow forester John Kemppainen quickly agreed. Kemppainen and Sorby contacted Chicago area sawyers and woodworkers to see if anyone was interested in turning part of the Bicentennial tree into something usable. West Chicago based Wade Ellis answered the call.
Ellis, who owns Ellis Custom Sawing and Woodworking, was a 30-year carpentry veteran when he first became interested in turning logs into furniture and other items. For the past decade or so he’s been doing that, often with so-called reclaimed urban wood.
“Most of the commercial mills don’t want urban trees, they tend to worry about the trees having nails in them, and that sort of thing. To me, though, they’re useful,” Ellis said Friday. “Why go into the forest and cut down living trees, if you can find use for trees that have already come down for some reason?”
He had worked with elm wood, but was less familiar with ash. And he wasn’t familiar at all with the Bicentennial Ash’s story when he came to Wilmette last September to look over its wood’s potential.
And potential there was, he decided, despite a large amount of rot near the base area of the tree, where it had broken.
“There was quite a lot of wood there,” he said. “Some of the logs they had were actually branches from higher up, and there was a lot from the main trunk as well.”
Ellis eventually took about 500 board-feet of tree, returning to Wilmette last week to mill boards from the main trunk, out of a crotch area where the tree first branched, and then some sections of straight log.
Those pieces of ash will become, if all goes well, two benches, a couple of lobby chairs, a window seat and a coffee table. First, however, the wood will undergo a lengthy two-stage drying process; first outdoors and then in a special drying kiln. After that, Ellis will craft the furniture, which may be ready for investiture at Village Hall sometime late next summer.
Not from a store
“I’m really looking forward to working with this wood,” Ellis said. “This is a way of showing people that the wood they use doesn’t just come from Menard’s — it comes from a forest, or their back yard, or the parkway. It has a history.”
History and education will also benefit from the Bicentennial tree’s remains.
In addition to deciding on furniture creation Canning said, officials looked for ways that the wood could be used educationally. Providing pieces to the museum for display was an obvious decision, he said. So was seeking input from area schools on how their teachers and students might integrate pieces of the ash into their lessons.
“We solicited suggestions from the schools and I was very impressed by the creativity of the teachers who gave us some. There were math projects, projects that I would call science projects, art projects and writing assignments suggested by the art, and of course there were history projects,” Canning said.
He and other village officials hope each school that receives sections of tree will chronicle the subsequent projects and provide summaries of each project that will become part of Wilmette’s history in the same way the tree that generated their projects was.
Furniture, museum display and ongoing education — they may not provide immortality for the Bicentennial Ash, but they should guarantee that the tree will remain part of Wilmette’s collective memory for many years to come.