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Howard County Director of Recreation and Parks, John Byrd, talks while Adirondack Tree Experts employees work together to take down an English Elm Tree at Belmont Manor in Elkridge on Monday, July 27, 2015.  The tree, the oldest on the estate's property, is infected with Dutch Elm Disease, a devastating fungal illness spread by the elm bark beetle. (Jen Rynda/BSMG)

Climbers with chain saws cut down what was believed to be one of the oldest trees in Maryland at Belmont Manor and Historic Park in Elkridge on Monday, as limbs and sections of the trunk lowered by cranes lay scattered below.

"A lot of stories are in that tree that we'll never hear. They will be gone," said Fred Dorsey, a local preservationist and a descendant of Caleb and Priscilla Dorsey, original owners of the Howard County manor house.

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The 95-foot tall English elm stood for generations; its exact age is unknown, but officials believe it could be 250 years old, or older. The main house at Belmont Manor was built in 1738.

"If we can make the assumption that this tree was planted when the house was built, that means the seed came over on a wooden ship, sailed from England and was planted here," said John Marshall, chief of parks and program services for the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, which maintains Belmont.

"George Washington would have been 6 years old at the time, which is pretty amazing," Marshall added. "This is before even the United States was formed."

The tree's demise came by Dutch elm disease, a fungal disease spread by the tiny elm bark beetle. All elms on the property had been treated for the disease over the past three years, but officials said preventive measures aren't foolproof. A sample sent to the University of Maryland's Plant Diagnostic Lab confirmed the disease.

In recent months, one side of the elm started to lose its foliage. Slowly, leaves have fallen, starting from the top, leaving branches skeleton-bare.

"It's a shame that even with the treatment, it contracted the Dutch elm disease," Marshall said. "It progressively got worse and worse and worse, and every day something was changing on it."

The Belmont elm is included on the registry compiled by Maryland Big Tree Program, a volunteer-run effort that's associated with the Department of Natural Resources Forest Service. The registry includes more than 2,500 large trees throughout Maryland.

According to the organization's website, volunteers last measured the Belmont elm in 2009, when it came in at 94.5 feet tall with a circumference of 251 inches.

John Bennett of Maryland Big Tree said in an email the Belmont elm may not date back to the original manor house. He said English elms were introduced in the U.S. around 1790.

The contractor dismantling the tree, Adirondack Tree Experts, planned to cut a "tree cookie" — a slice of the trunk that will be preserved and interpreted by an expert to determine its exact age. Marshall said that process could take months, in part because funding hasn't been secured to pay for it.

The county is spending about $10,000 to take the tree down, Marshall said. The Howard County Woodworkers Guild plans to use wood unaffected by disease to create bowls, coasters and pens that will be sold at the park gift shop.

On Monday, the county had a videographer on hand to document the tree's final hours.

Crews were expected to continue work Tuesday filling in the gap left by the roots. Belmont is a popular venue for weddings, conferences and other events, and Marshall said, "We can't have a hole in the front yard."

He said some area residents and those whose lives have been touched by the elm have visited Belmont in recent days to say goodbye.

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Belmont Manor is listed on the Maryland Historic Trust's Inventory of Historic Properties and the National Register of Historic Places. The manor was a private residence for more than 200 years, then served as a conference center and the site of classes for Howard Community College's hospitality program. The county purchased the building in 2012 and recently reopened it after an extensive renovation.

Through all those uses, the giant elm that presides over Belmont's front lawn has played a supporting role in the making of countless memories.

"It reaches a point in time when there is a passing, and the tree is as much a living part of Belmont as were the families that were here," Dorsey said.

mcollins@baltsun.com

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