When horse-drawn wagons were plying York Road and telephones and electric lights were relative novelties, a copper beech tree was sending its roots deep into the rich earth. That was even before Prospect Hill Cemetery had been established in 1892 on the 8-acre spit of land, just north of the Towson business district.
For well more than a century, the tree has stood sentinel over the terminal destination of families long associated with Baltimore County history — Ridgelys, Parkers, Hillens, Jarretts, Campbells and Baynes — and of Harris Glenn Milstead, the actor made famous by director John Waters and better known as Divine.
Now thought to be 130 to 150 years old, the landmark towers at 80 feet tall, with a crown of 70 feet. But it has come to the end of its life, a victim of disease and the vicissitudes of time. Excel Tree Experts are to remove it on Nov. 18.
“It’s so iconic to me and what it represents,” said Ginger Mudd Galvez, a Baltimore writer who is secretary and a member of the cemetery board. Three generations of the Mudd family, who are related to Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who treated presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, have been buried at Prospect Hill. “It has sheltered my family members and those who built Baltimore County,” Galvez said.
The copper beech got a proper farewell: a ceremony Friday morning with tributes from Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olzewski Jr., County Councilman David Marks, County Chief Sustainability Officer Steven Lafferty and cemetery officers.
In its next life, it will be transformed into desks, credenzas, bookshelves and cases: Sandtown Furniture Co., in South Baltimore, will make custom handcrafted furniture from the donated tree.
The Victorian-style cemetery was established on land once owned by the Ridgely family, who had lived for generations at Hampton, now the Hampton National Historic Site. The Ridgelys had interred some family members there.
Others spending eternity at Prospect Hill are veterans from the American Revolution to the invasion of Grenada.
“This giant tree has been here for so long,” said Carolyn Parker Knott, the cemetery’s president. “This tree has sheltered so many people, and my grandfather played under it when he was a child.”
Knott, who lives in Lutherville and had grown up on Allegheny Avenue in Towson, has been intimately involved with the cemetery since 1950.
“I’ve known it since I was a little girl. My grandparents lost a daughter at 18, and I used to pick flowers with my grandmother and we’d go up there in the evening and place them on her grave,” said Knott, whose father had been the cemetery’s president for 15 years.
Last year, cemetery officials noticed that the tree’s health had begun to change, and after experts determined that it was diseased and had reached the end of its natural life span, the board decided that the time sadly had come for its removal.
Rather than just dispose of the famed tree, they turned to Will Phillips, a founder and partner of Sandtown Furniture Co.
“Even though it’s at the end of its life, we think about all of the history and magic that’s in the wood,” Phillips said. “They get a second life, and recycling this tree makes it very special for us.”
Phillips said that copper beech trees are not that common and most of the wood used by his firm is oak, ash and walnut. After the wood is cut into shorter boards, it will be air-dried for a year before it is turned into furniture.
“We need a moisture content of 7 or 8% in order to avoid stress, cracks and splits in the wood," he said.
“It makes us feel better what Will intends to do with the tree,” Knott said. “It gives us comfort that it will live on.”