New England has been renowned for its trees for hundreds of years. It provided pines for masts of ships, oaks for houses and their furnishings, elms for comfort and shade. Large trees were constant companions, and as much a part of the cultural landscape of the region as the meetinghouse.
Settlement cleared the land for agriculture but some of the grandest trees remained in dooryards and on town commons. They witnessed the movements of armies, visits from George Washington, and became integral parts of local history. It is unsurprising then that Arnold Arboretum plant explorer Ernest Henry Wilson was drawn to photograph them in the 1920s.
The Graceful Elm
In his book Aristocrats of the Trees, Wilson sang the praises of the American elm (Ulmus americana),
“The most graceful tree of the northeastern states and Canada and one of the most beautiful trees of the northern hemisphere.”Ernest Wilson
He distinguished three forms, the most common having “ascending stems which give off spreading branches and pendant branchlets, the whole forming a round-topped shapely mass.” The broad, low variety having “many massive, wide-spreading branches shading an enormous area of ground.” The third form having a habit “strongly suggesting an old-fashioned wine glass” in its vase-like shape.
Wilson found them “beautiful at all seasons of the year: when [in spring] minute flowers … cover the branches: when in summer it rises like a great fountain of dark and brilliant green … : when autumn delicately tints its leaves … : and when winter brings out every detail of the great arching limbs … in clear relief against the sky.”
In Search of an Elm
On a clear day in January 1924, Wilson and his party set out from Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, probably up the Arborway to the Worcester Turnpike (now Massachusetts Route 9), for the hour drive to Framingham.
Along the way, he would have passed near Arboretum Director Charles Sprague Sargent’s Brookline estate, Holm Lea, which he would visit briefly, camera in hand, in June of that year and later return in May 1925 to photograph the lilacs and azaleas in full bloom.
Their destination was further away however. Pushing on past Framingham center, they finally reached Gates Street. The object of their journey, the Rugg-Gates house and the magnificent elm that graced its front yard, lay before them. As Wilson scouted positions for his camera, the current owner, architect Hartley Dennett, might have greeted him. The tree was a tourist attraction, especially after the automobile made daytrips a popular pastime.
This massive living organism, which at that time was reputed to be one of the largest elms in New England, had two trunks and the “nubbin” of a third sandwiched between. The twin branching may have resulted from a split the tree experienced as a sapling, or it could have been two separate trunks that sprang from the same root.
Town legend supposed that the tree was planted in 1774, but it is likely to have been older still. Its branches had a spread in 1924 of 145 feet (44 meters), and it stood 70 feet (21 meters) tall.
Wilson took six views, more than he did of any other tree in this project. Three of the images detail the curving, climbing trunk, with its furrowed bark starkly highlighted in the light of a winter afternoon. The remainder are brilliant portraits of the spreading elm form, gnarled and horizontally reaching, with several of the longest limbs supported on frames, not unlike some of the ancient trees Wilson photographed in temples in Japan.
Decline of an Elm
The following years were unkind to the Rugg-Gates elm and its austere colonial house nearby. In 1931 the Worcester Turnpike was modernized and expanded to a four-lane concrete road. Visitation swelled. A later owner of the tree and property remembered upwards to 400 people stopping to see the tree on a weekend.
The post-war period brought the construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike that bisected Gates Street. In 1957, a cloverleaf interchange was constructed less than 500 yards away that disturbed the hydrology of the neighborhood. Bereft of its underground water source, the once grand elm rapidly succumbed. It was cut down in 1961.
The colonial house and adjacent stone workshop continued in use until the 1990s but were then abandoned. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation attempted to redevelop the buildings and interest the Town of Framingham in acquiring them but they were finally demolished in August 2012. A poignant end.
It is notable just how much the landscape of New England has changed in the nearly one hundred years since these images were captured. Farmland has given way to highways, strip malls, and housing subdivisions. Formerly open arable land has been filled by the succession of new growth trees and shrubs. Dense undergrowth now chokes the understory, obstructing distant views.
Wilson’s photographs are snapshots of a place on the cusp between the rural world of the colonies and new republic and the modern world of the twentieth century. His family outings then might be likened to a drive back in time, to a world poised to disappear.
For an introduction to Ernest Wilson’s photographs of notable New England trees, please see Ernest Henry Wilson and the Trees of New England.
All of Wilson’s New England tree photographs have been digitized and are available on Digital Commonwealth.
A selection of Wilson’s finest New England tree portraits may be found on Google Arts and Culture.