There once was a beautiful, sprawling sycamore in what is now Middletown known as "Mamoosan's Tree." According to legend, Mamoosan – a Wangunk Native American who sold his land to the colonists – would return in spirit to the tree every autumn to visit the graves of his ancestors.
Legends of the Wangunk tribe that settled along the big bend in the Connecticut River seem to fill Indian Hill Cemetery along Route 66 in Middletown as I make my way past the Middlesex County Historical Society's informational sign that stands at the entrance to the 1850 graveyard. Perched proudly on a hill, the cemetery has one of the best views in the Forest City.
Not every great hike has to be out in the middle of the woods. I visited the cemetery, located along the bustling highway near the heart of the city and neighbor of Wesleyan University, with tree expert and Glastonbury resident Ed Richardson. I never pass up an opportunity to walk with the knowledgeable 90-year-old tree expert, who is co-chairman of the Connecticut Notable Tree Project. Richardson, along with other voluteers, travels the state documenting the largest trees.
Indian Hill is one of the most picturesque cemeteries in the state and similar to Hartford's Cedar Hill Cemetery. A product of the "America Beautiful" movement – promoting "rural environment and serene landscaping for public places" – the cemetery attracts young and old with its natural beauty.
Like many cemeteries, Indian Hill is full of old trees. Richardson will host a walk in September that will showcase more than two dozen of the old-timers.
"There aren't really many big trees in the forest because they have all been cut over at least once," Richardson said. "You will come across the occasional wolf tree – usually an oak the farmer left to shade his livestock. But for the big trees, it was usually places where people had money and could keep up the trees."
Anyone who has ever walked with Richardson knows his talks are a fun mixture of humor and tree facts. On this journey, he pointed out what he believes is the lone specimen of a Corsican pine and, as we passed two giant Douglas rirs on top of Sagamore Summit, he spoke of the tragic demise of David Douglas. The Scottish botanist, who discovered the fir tree, was killed when he fell into a pit in Hawaii designed to capture wild bulls. He was gored by a bull which had fallen into the same pit.
"It was one of the rigors going for plants in the 1800s, I guess," he said. "No one ever thinks of the tree explorers. Everyone focuses on the geographical explorers like Cortes and Columbus. But they faced the same hardships any explorer would face."
As we walked around the cemetery, Richardson pointed out large white pines, a native evergreen that King George would mark for use as ship masts, and huge pin oaks similar to one planted by each of the 169 towns and cities in the state after the 1902 Constitutional Convention. Richardson said the number of surviving trees was down to less than 70 in 2002.
"It is probably 50 or lower now," he said. "We lose some each year."
The cemetery's two "monster trees," as Richardson calls them, are a 200-year-old white oak and a huge copper beech located next to Indian Hill's beautiful brownstone chapel. The beech tree is slowly dying and will need to be cut down over the winter, Richardson said – part of the life and death in a beautiful cemetery on top of an old Indian hill.
Richardson, along with retired Hartford City Forester John Kehoe, will lead a walk at the cemetery on Sept. 13 at 10 a.m. The mile-long loop walk will showcase many stops at the specimen trees. The rain date is Sept. 14. The cemetery is located at the corner of Route 66 and Vine Street.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun