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Historic ash tree on Md. 97 cut down after officials find it 'about 97 percent dead'

A Civil War-era ash tree was cut down July 17, 2018 on Md. 97 after the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest and State Highway Administration for it was dead and a hard to keep memorials and roads. (Jennifer Turiano | Carroll County Times)

UNION MILLS — State and local agencies cut down an historic landmark tree on the corner of Md. 97 and Old Hanover Road Tuesday afternoon after finding the 66-foot ash was almost entirely dead and at risk of falling.

Representatives from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and State Highway Administration at the site said they’d had their eyes on the tree for some time before deciding to cut it down. If the tree fell on its own, it would have damaged the World War I and World War II memorials on the nearby Lions Club property, and the road over Big Pipe Creek because its roots are big enough to rip up the asphalt.

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“We were afraid it was going to fall on our memorials,” Lions Club member Ron Stonesifer said Tuesday afternoon over the noise of the woodchipper and chainsaws. “The limbs were hollow and the inside [of the trunk] is soft.”

DNR Project Forester Donna Davis said some of the hollow limbs were as large as 12 inches in diameter.

“[The ash] was about 97 percent dead,” she said.

The decision to take down the tree was made after Davis and SHA Resident Maintenance Engineer Brad Myers found the tree was somehow compromised, “whether by overpruning or blight,” Myers said.

“The root system started to decay,” he said. “It was evident it was going to die.”

The two agencies tried to hold off on cutting down the tree as long as they could, Myers said, in case the ash could rebound — but there was also evidence of invasive species damage from the emerald ash borer.

“Up in the top you could see where the birds had been pecking at the bark,” said Davis, which is a sign of the non-native beetle’s presence.

The emerald ash borer is killing many of the ash trees in Maryland to the point where DNR and agencies in surrounding states are trying to find the healthy ash trees that remain, collect their seeds and attempt to save the species, according to the project forester.

“It’s probably a big reason for this tree’s decline,” Davis said. “[The borer] cuts off the vascular system of the tree” over time by boring holes under its bark.

Myers and Davis oversaw the felling of the tree, along with Lions Club members and Union Mills Homestead staff.

But aside from being surrounded by the historic Union Mills Homestead and war memorials, the ash itself is a historic landmark.

“The interest with this tree,” Davis said, “is that because of the location as a historic place from the Civil War, this tree may be a witness tree.”

Myers has taken a few pieces of the tree back to the SHA Westminster shop for testing to see how old the tree actually is. The results will take a few days, he said.

Don Lindsey, a Colonial carpenter for the Union Mills Homestead, is also taking pieces of the tree to see if he can make something with the historic material.

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“I personally think that tree is about 200 years old,” said Lions Club member David Bath looking out at the massive felled trunk. “It was sad to see it go down. A couple of the woodcutters here said they’d never seen an ash that big.”

But although Bath isn’t the only one who speculates the tree is hundreds of years old, the oldest recording of the tree found so far is from 1936, according to Sam Riley, president of the Union Mills Homestead board of governors.

If the tree is as old as they suspect, Riley said, it could have potentially seen construction on the turnpike at that location, which started in approximately 1805, after the Maryland General Assembly chartered a turnpike company to build the historic Reisterstown-Baltimore Turnpike — the route for which continued through Westminster to points westward, including Pittsburgh via Union Mills, Littlestown and Gettysburg.

“The wagon on Carroll County’s seal reflects the significance of the early traffic along this road in the 19th century,” he said. “This road was the same route used by many soldiers of the Union Army in the days leading up to Gettysburg.

“Thus,” Riley said, “the tree would have been witness to both Union and Confederate forces that overnighted in the area in the days surrounding Gettysburg.”

More information about the ash will come once it’s dated and its rings are counted. Once the salvageable wood has been assessed, the homestead will determine how its going to memorialize the historic tree.

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