My feelings caught me by surprise when I learned about the declining state of a beech tree that stretches over the stone wall outside Perkins Stone Mansion.
I don’t have any particular ties to the tree. I wrote about it once and have admired it on visits to the historical site, but it doesn’t hold a prominent place in my memories.
Still, when I found out it was beyond saving, I felt inexplicably sad.
Maybe it’s because the tree has occupied a front seat to Akron’s history. Maybe it’s because it’s been around decades longer than anyone on Earth.
Or maybe it’s just because it was a grand old gal, scarred and thick around the middle, with limbs reaching out to embrace anyone who approached.
No one knows exactly how old the copper-leaf European beech is. It’s believed Col. Simon Perkins, the son of Akron’s founder, planted the tree around the time his mansion was completed in 1837.
For years it’s been a local landmark, with a plaque on its trunk noting it was named the largest of its kind in Summit County in 1958. It’s been a state champion, too, Akron’s city arborist, Bill Hahn, noted.
Last week, Hahn measured its trunk at 65.1 inches in diameter and estimated its height at 55 feet, although he said it was probably 60 feet or taller before it started dying back.
The tree stands just yards from the offices of the Summit County Historical Society, so Executive Director Leianne Neff Heppner has passed under its canopy countless times.
Heppner’s face clouded over when she recounted how schoolchildren visiting the mansion would be encouraged to join hands around the tree, just to see how many people it took to, as she put it, “give it a hug.”
For many children and adults alike, the tree had almost magical properties, its gnarled shape reminding them of the Whomping Willow from the Harry Potter series. “It doesn’t have any werewolves or anything coming out of its root system,” Heppner said with a smile.
Hahn said the tree started showing signs of stress and bareness at the top of its canopy three or four years ago. Apparently, salted snow had been pushed against the roots repeatedly when the driveway was plowed, damaging the aging tree and introducing fungi, he said. Heppner said damage from a beetle infestation a few years ago may have contributed, too.
She said the historical society brought in arborists Ron Dawson and Jeff Stewart in 2010 to make a last-ditch effort to save the beech through IV-like injections, and at first the tree rebounded a bit. But last year, it showed more decline.
“It became apparent that it was too far gone,” said Hahn, who is clearly doleful over its impending death.
Not only was the tree a landmark, he said, but like all trees, it also brought assets to its urban neighborhood. Studies show trees’ many benefits include raising real estate values, boosting retail sales and even deterring crime.
Hahn used the U.S. Forest Service’s i-Tree software to determine the beech’s monetary value, an impressive $37,000.
Today the tree is clearly ailing, only the lower branches on one side showing growth. A barrier of orange netting encircles it, just in case any of the limbs should fall.
In the short term, the society plans to remove branches that might pose a threat. Eventually the entire tree will need to come down. The historical society is hoping to find an organization that will donate its services to do the work or contribute the money to hire someone.
Hahn hopes the tree can be cloned, possibly to propagating suckers that are growing from the roots. That would allow one of the tree’s offspring to be planted on the same spot, and maybe others could be sold to raise money for the historical society, he said.
Hahn even envisions planting a whole block or street with the clones as a way of honoring the tree and its legacy.
He also hopes wood from the old tree can be salvaged so artisans can use it to make commemorative items, such as bowls and cutting boards.
Even if the tree can’t be saved, maybe its memory can.