By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
A giant elm that stood as a sentry over weddings, earned television fame and had a farm named after it has lost its fight against Dutch Elm but is being sawn, carved and sculpted into memories for the Brown family and friends.
“That tree was a big deal,” saya Nancy Brown, who is walking in the forest while chatting with me. She and Stuart are farmers in Grey County, having taken the farm over from Stuart’s father, Austin, and spent many years breeding purebred Charolais cattle and racehorses. Every horse and cow’s name boasted the prefix of Lone Elm for the Browns decided to name their farm Lone Elm as their majestic fence-row elm was the only surviving elm tree for miles around.
“In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Dutch Elm disease came through our part of Grey County and took all the beautiful elms,” remembers Nancy. “They were such majestic trees with their characteristic vase shape.” One elm that survived was the “lone elm” growing in a fence row by the “other barn”, a smaller barn on the farm property that once housed sheep. Without a direct source of water, the barn was later retired for livestock use but remained on the farm as part of the vignette of barn and tree on the Brown property. The tree shaded the Charolais when the fields around it were in pasture and also served as a sentry when the Brown children cut and raked hay on the tractor.
Since it survived the ravages of Dutch Elm disease, tree experts were hoping the Lone Elm had disease resistance and might survive to old age. Accordingly, Henry Kock, founder of the Elm Tree Recovery Project in Ontario, came with a crew and took grafts to propagate the Lone Elm. Twenty years later, the Lone Elm is still featured on the University of Guelph’s Elm Tree Recovery Page website found at https://arboretum.uoguelph.ca/researchandstewardship/elmrecovery.
That same year, the now-cancelled television show, Country Canada, did a segment on the Elm Tree Recovery Project and visited the tree to film the Brown family sharing memories of it. Before that happened, Austin Brown had suffered a stroke and was in the hospital. “Stuart visited his dad and told him the Lone Elm was on national television. Austin got a huge smile on his face despite what he was going through medically because his special tree was being honoured,” remembers Nancy. Austin passed away that year.
However, the elm tree continued to be a special tree for the Brown family. In 2016, Stuart and Nancy’s son Austin and his wife were married in the barn beside the tree and had their wedding photos by the elm tree.
Back when Austin and his siblings were young, the tree stood as a marker. Nancy says they would stare out the window hoping to be the first one to see the tree in the distance because then they knew they were close to home.
The branches of the Lone Elm were high so it was never a tree the kids could climb. Neither did it ever have a swing. It was noted for its one drooping limb which some might have construed as a deformity but instead, added to its beauty. However, the Browns were warned that the drooping limb might be the tree’s demise. If it broke off, the tree’s cambium would be exposed to the Dutch Elm fungus. Even healthy and disease-resistant elms can still be overwhelmed by the fungus once damaged, and die.
That is, indeed, what happened. In the winter storm of 2016, the Lone Elm’s crown was severely damaged when 24 branches broke off and fell to the ground. It was the beginning of the end. The disease managed to get hold and the following year, one third of the tree died. The next year, another third died. Prior to 2020, only the drooping limb budded out. By 2020, the drooping limb was also dead.
“It was so sad to see it dead last summer that we decided to have it removed after the crop came off. We had it felled in November with many family members coming to say goodbye. There were lots of tears,” says Nancy.
However, the family resolved to make a positive out of a negative. Wallace Tree Services, owned by a family friend, came and cut the tree down. Then another young fellow by the name of Kyle McDonald came to help the family decide how to cut the tree up. “He understood how important the tree was,” says Nancy. Accordingly, the tree was sawn up into lumber, live edge pieces and cookies. The Browns sent out a family-wide email asking anyone who wanted a piece of the wood to claim it and since then, wood turners, carpenters and artisans have been making everything from bowls to candlesticks to rings and charcuterie boards out of the wet wood.
The remaining boards have been stacked and stickered for drying. “We calculated that we have 1,500 board feet of wood from the tree to use,” says Nancy. Once drying is complete, the boards will be made into tables, coffee tables, headboards and a fireplace mantle. “It has beautiful grain and everyone who sees it is amazed by it,” says Nancy. Some planks feature a tight grain, some curled grain and some has spalting.
Nancy and Stuart already have two bowls that came off a lathe. As her personal treasure, Nancy wishes to have a cribbage board made from the wood. “A friend of mine makes cribbage boards and half-joking, I said I wanted something made that I could take with me to the seniors home!” The couple is also getting a fireplace mantle made for the farmhouse along with an art piece made of a slab of live edge and photographs that will document the story of the Lone Elm. Another piece will go in the garden and large cookies from the trunk will be put up in the barn. These items will stay with the farm.
More lore from the Lone Elm can be found in the book Barn Stories written by Mabel Williamson, formerly Brown. ◊