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The Washington Elm

Daughters of the American Revolution plant a tree on the Arizona State College campus in Flagstaff.  Left to right:  Dr. Grady Gammage, Naomi Dinsmore, Katherine Ormond, Mrs.V.M. Slipher, Alma Acker Bunch, Mary Spencer, Bertha Kennedy and Mrs. Louis Benedic. The two other women are not identified.

Daughters of the American Revolution plant a tree on the Arizona State College campus in Flagstaff. Left to right: Dr. Grady Gammage, Naomi Dinsmore, Katherine Ormond, Mrs.V.M. Slipher, Alma Acker Bunch, Mary Spencer, Bertha Kennedy and Mrs. Louis Benedic. The two other women are not identified.

On a rainy Wednesday, April 22, 1931, members of the Coconino Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution gathered together with Dr. Grady Gammage, president of Arizona State College (now Northern Arizona University) to plant an elm tree in honor of the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth. The tree, (a skinny twig in the center of the photograph next to the flag) was grown from a cutting marketed by the DAR as being from the “Washington Elm” an American elm tree that grew in Cambridge, Mass., where Washington was gathering troops to form the Continental Army in 1775.

The Washington Elm was thought to be more than 200 years old when it died in 1923.  Cuttings  were taken to the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard, and some, it was rumored, were given to a DAR member in Maryland who grew them as grafts and later made them available to DAR chapters for ceremonial plantings.

Wood from the tree was made into chairs and bookends, which were sent to state governments for display and to Mount Vernon, Washington’s home.

Nearly two million trees were planted in the United States in 1931 and 1932, 40 of them on the ASC campus.  Riordan’s Arizona Lumber and Timber Company provided “simple pine trees” as memorials to four pioneer Arizona families, among them the family of Arizona governor George W.P. Hunt.

The ladies of the Coconino Chapter of the DAR researched the suitability of planting an American elm at 7,000 feet before ordering the one pictured here.  For help, they turned to G.A. Pearson of Tucson and Flagstaff, who had just opened a U.S. Forest Service experimental station on 2,400 acres north of Flagstaff in Fort Valley.  The American elm, it turned out, was a hardy native species, seen mostly in the eastern and central U.S., but highly adaptable and easy to transplant.

It was also suitably historic, associated with Washington, with William Penn, who stood under one during treaty signing, and even with the lumber of a fort in Boonesboro, later Kentucky, where the first legislative session beyond the Alleghenies was held.  Elm leaf motifs also appeared frequently in Colonial and early American quilts and household objects.

The Washington Elm in this photograph grew to be a landmark on the ASC north campus, near Ashurst Auditorium and Old Main, although the plaque identifying it disappeared in the 1950s.

In the 1970s, when Dutch elm disease, a fungus spread by an elm bark beetle, was destroying American elms in the east, ASC forestry professor Donald Wommack took steps to preserve the tree by grafting cuttings and growing them in the university greenhouse.

Arizona DAR members, Mrs. Luther Glen Sr., rededicated the elm in May 1987, placing a new plaque at its base.  In 1992, a cutting and graft grown by Mr. Wommack’s assistant, Bradford Blake, was sent to Washington D.C. to be planted along the driveway of the National DAR headquarters.

The little twig had its own airline seat on a TWA flight and was awarded pilot’s wings while en route.

An archivist at the national DAR confirmed that the tree is doing well; the container that held it during the flight has been added to the organization’s collection of historical items.

Today the Washington Elm is on the historic district walking tour conducted by Bradford Blake. The Coconino Chapter of the DAR continues to keep watch over the tree.

— Joan Brundige-Baker. Photo courtesy Northern Arizona University, Cline Library, Special Collections.

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