Ammons: Welcome to the Preservation Technology podcast, the show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons, and today we join NCPTT’s Jeff Guin as he speaks with Guy Sternberg, a certified arborist and retired landscape architect. Guy spearheaded an Internet-based campaign to save an historic tree in Kewanee, Illinois.
Guin: Guy, welcome to the podcast. I wonder if you could just start by telling us how you first found out about this tree.
Sternberg: I am on the State’s Big Tree committee with a few other people. One of the other people, who is from Kewanee sent me an email. And he said, well, looks like they are going to cut the old hedge tree down in Kewanee because it is leaning over the highway and think it’s leaning a bit more. And this has been a tree that I’ve taken tour groups to. We do big tree tours around the state. It was one of the last original surviving hedge trees in Illinois and happened to be an osage orange. And these were planted due to the impetus of Professor Jonathan Turner, who was a professor at Illinois College, which was the first and is the oldest college in Illinois.
Guin: Well, this is obviously an important part of the city’s history. What did you do to mobilize efforts to save the tree?
Sternberg: This was Friday night when I got the message. The city offices were closed for the weekend, and they had already made plans to cut this tree down the following Tuesday. So, dropping a billion other things that were already in my lap, I went through my address book for about three hours and handpicked 250 people who I thought might take an interest in this, and sent them out a short email expressing what I had heard and if you feel up to it could contact the city and ask them for a little bit more time so that we could evaluate this thing and see if there are other opportunities available. And of the 250, I think at least 50 of them did contact the city from as far away as Europe and all over the states and so forth.
Guin: How did the city react to all the attention?
Sternberg: I got a call from the mayor, and I talked with him and I talked with the city manager, and explained to them that we had done a lot of things like this in the past. I worked with other people involved in trying to save our monumental historic trees. And they said, OK, we’ve got it set up for Tuesday, what should we do? I suggested, well, I’d seen the tree–I had photographs of it I had taken before, I knew it was leaning over the state highway. I said if you could remove those two lower limbs that are cantilevered way out over the highway, for now, that would take some of the pressure off it. And we could set up a meeting up there as soon as possible with some other people who can evaluate this and determine what methods could be used to preserve it. The city knew it was historic. It pre-dated the city there. It was planted there when the whole city was just one farm. And they were aware of that. The county historical society was aware of it, but they were just concerned for public safety–obviously as they should be.
Guin: So you were at least temporarily able to keep the tree from being cut. Tell us a little bit more about this particular species of tree and how that contributed to what happened next.
Sternberg: Being an osage orange tree, we also knew that there were a lot of options open to us that wouldn’t be open with almost any other species of tree. First of all, it’s just totally decay-immune. You can have osage orange heartwood that has been made into fence posts back in the depression that are just as solid as a rock with no treatment of any kind. It’s very tough wood. It has latent buds that will allow it to re-sprout from anywhere on the tree. If you cut it, it will re-sprout and grow again. And that’s one of the reasons it was selected for hedging back in the 1840s. It’s typically a thorny tree, and professor Turner realized after looking at this that if you plant a bunch of these seedlings in a fence row, let them grow a couple of years and cut them back, they will re-sprout and re-sprout more vigorously and thorny than ever. Then you can trim those thorny re-sprouts into a hedge that will stop livestock. This was a time when the Midwest economy was changing from open range to farming, and they had to have something that would fence in and fence out livestock. And as you get further west in Kansas, Nebraska and so forth, they didn’t have many trees that you could use to make fences out of. You could cut a cottonwood down and build a fence, but by the time you got to the north end of the fence, the south end has already decayed away–it just won’t last outdoors. But these living fences would last.
So we knew that. I’d seen osage orange trees that had been cut back every year since the early 1930s. There was one that was growing under where they’re putting a new rural electric light in 1930-whatever, in the Dust Bowl days, and the farmer didn’t want to cut his tree down, so he just and the electric company cut the top half of it and then every year when it re-sprouted, he would trim the sprouts back into a nice little round gum ball. And this tree has just been going just fine ever since then and still is.
Guin: So at this point you’ve got global support for the preservation of this tree and you’ve got the city’s cooperation, so what were the next steps as far as actually preserving the tree?
Sternberg: Well, they went ahead and did the pruning. They had to have a permit and a crane and everything on site anyway because they were planning on taking the tree down, and had blocked off the state highway in the process. And so instead of taking the whole tree down, they did as I asked and took about two tons of wood off the down-lean side, if you will, to give the tree better balance. The whole tree is still balanced over the street, but not nearly as badly as it was. And then we got together a couple of weeks later with a couple of arborists and city council members and the local newspaper guy and a couple of other people who had an interest in this for one reason or another, and a few other people who said I can’t come to the meeting but here’s what I think and let me know what you come up with and give us some photos and measurements and so forth. And these were expert arborists from all over the country, there was an engineering firm involved and several people who just wanted to help raise money or make awareness of the tree their local cause. We had a radio station in Chicago that was doing interviews with me and with the mayor about the tree. The Home Grown Tomatoes Show on Justin TV in Alabama has put it on their show and they actually set up a Facebook page [since inactive] for the tree and the ways to donate money. The city has worked with the chamber of commerce and the local bank to set up a dedicated bank account for the tree. And no money can be taken out of that account unless it is countersigned by both the city and either the bank or the chamber, and restricted strictly to the Kewanee hedge tree. People are able to send their contributions there and those will be used to stabilize the tree, to provide interpretive signing for the tree. They have to raise and relocate a sidewalk that is over the root system. We need to provide a vertical beam and some dynamic cabling to ensure that the tree will be stable even in a severe wind or ice storms because of its lean. So these are the types of things the money is used to fund for.
Guin: Excellent, what do you see as your role, personally, in this process?
Sternberg: It involves giving the tree a personality, making people aware of why it is important, and giving them a way to contribute either monetarily or with volunteer work. And it can work surprisingly well and it is working in this case. We plan to go back once the city gets permission from the adjacent landowner to place this beam on their property via an easement. The beam will be placed like a big vertical post. And then from the top of that post, across the sidewalk to the main limbs of the tree there will be dynamic cabling put in and installed with big eye-bolts. And professional arborists will be doing that in July. They will take a break out from their International Society of Arboriculture meeting in July, which is in Chicago and make the two-hour drive west to Kewanee and a team of volunteer arborists will be doing the instillation then. So we will sort of be working together on it.
Guin: When you sent that first email, did you have any idea what the reaction would be?
Sternberg: I kind of did because, like I have said, we have been doing this for years with other trees mostly in our home county. We have more than 20 trees that we’ve monumented and some of them we have worked on and cabled and put lighting protection on and so forth. And of course the people in my address book are not just ordinary folks, they are people that I associate with because we have similar interests. And so a lot of these people are doing the same thing I’m doing elsewhere in the world or elsewhere in the country. So I knew that some of them at least would write the city and say, “hey let’s give the tree a reprieve, let’s look at this and let’s see if we can help you find a solution that would keep your people safe but also keep the tree going.” And yeah, I expected it and that’s what we got. And I was nonetheless very gratified to see that so many people came out of the woodworks so fast because we only had two days before the tree was gone. And also I need to commend the city because the mayor, the city council members, and the city manager — all were really sad that that tree supposedly had to go but they didn’t know another solution because they just hadn’t dealt with something like this before. And now that they are doing it and they have some help, they are going out and recruiting help. They’ve recruited someone to donate all the beams that are necessary. They are taking every step they can to work with all of us in saving what is their natural and historical heritage as well.
Guin: You mentioned something earlier about the tree actually having its own Facebook fan page. Is this the first time, that you’re aware of, that social media has played a part in a campaign like this?
Sternberg: Yes it is. I’ve used the internet in the past and have memberships in various green organizations to just get emails to people, but I am not very literate in terms of social media and some of these other people are. And I think the younger you are, the more involved with media, then the better you are at it. So the same person who is doing the Justin.tv stream program on the tree said I’ll set up a Facebook page if you get the city to it operated.
So he set it all up, put a way for people to donate, you know click through PayPal, gave it to the city and the city is running it now. And it’s the same fund, it all goes to the dedicated fund for the tree. And if we don’t spend all of it in this initial go around, we’ll be coming back every few years to do some trimming and inspecting and tweaking on the tree to make sure that it is around basically forever.
Guin: What can other historic landscape professionals learn from your experience?
Sternberg: Well, from this one, you might say it is an anomaly, but I have done this type of thing before, and if you are willing to drop your other work and jump on an emergency like this, it would be better if you could do it before it was an emergency, but then you don’t have the motivation of people. People aren’t willing to do something until the cat is almost out of the door. And the question is if I waited two days later, the tree would be laying on the ground. So timing is critical first of all. It has to be urgent, but it has to be doable. The other thing is that I think you need to get the right people involved and the right mix of people, who number one are altruistic and have these interests, and number two, have something that they can contribute in terms of knowledge or equipment or whatever.
I think that in any case, and each situation is unique, but if someone has an historic landscape or an historic tree in their community–if possible, get out there in advance and inventory its condition and the situation and its legal status and so on so that you know something about the tree. Take the measurements, do the legwork, take a GPS reading, so if you want to send the tree’s location to someone else remote so they can get on Google Earth or something and get a view of the tree, they can do that. Take those steps in advance and sort of adopt that tree. Work with the landowner and make sure they are aware of how important this tree is and the things that you should or shouldn’t do with an old tree to keep it going. Try to work with local groups, who might be interested in interpretive signing or in doing tours that involved the tree. Doing specials in the newspaper, maybe seasonal specials. And while people are doing that, they are going to start looking at the birds that are in the tree and the shrubs that are in the woods around the tree, they are going to get out instead of sitting in front of their TV watching baseball and hopefully they will get more involved with everything that makes their world tick.
Ammons: And that was Jeff Guin talking to arborist Guy Sternberg. If you would like to learn more about this project, visit out podcast shownotes at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training website. That’s ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.