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Belmont's centuries-old elm will be cut down next week because of disease

The oldest tree on the property of one of Howard County's historic landmarks stands 95 feet tall, its branches lush with green leaves that have provided shade for generations of people picnicking, playing or taking in the county's largest undisturbed viewshed at Belmont Manor in Elkridge.

Over the past several months, however, one side of the stately elm tree has started to lose its foliage. Slowly, the leaves have fallen, starting from the top, leaving its branches skeleton-bare months before fall.

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"It progressively got worse and worse and worse, and every day something was changing on it," according to John Marshall, chief of parks and program services for Howard County's Department of Recreation and Parks.

Department staff sent a sample to the University of Maryland's Plant Diagnostic Lab, which confirmed their fear: The old tree has Dutch Elm Disease, a fungal illness spread by the tiny elm bark beetle. Though all of the elms at Belmont have been treated for the disease over the past three years, preventive measures aren't foolproof, officials said.

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Faced with the news, department staff had to make a tough choice: leave the tree standing as it gradually loses leaves and its roots die, or chop it down. To protect the half dozen other elm trees at Belmont, they decided on the latter option.

Next Monday and Tuesday, crews will use chain saws and a crane to dismantle the tree.

The two-day process will be painstaking and carefully orchestrated. The county will have a videographer on site to document the tree's final days, and observers who come to watch will be corralled into a safe zone yards away to ensure they are kept out of harm's way.

Because the elm is located within a Maryland Historic Trust area of the park, an archaeologist will be present the second day as the roots are dug up, to ensure there aren't any artifacts buried at the foot of the tree.

"There could be a time capsule or, God forbid, a skeleton," Marshall said.

After the roots have been pulled out of the ground, they will be shredded in a stump grinder to make sure the disease doesn't spread. Another elm tree, which Belmont caretakers believe is a seedling of the sick elm, sits just a few feet away.

Crews will end the tree removal process by filling in the gap left by the roots. Belmont is a popular venue for weddings, conferences and other events, and "we can't have a hole in the front yard," said Marshall.

The tree, an iconic presence at Belmont Manor that often shows up in promotional photos, will be gone but county officials are working to memorialize it.

In addition to the video, portions of the tree's wood will be used to make furniture, pens and other trinkets, and a cross-section of the tree will be preserved in wax.

The county will finally be able to determine an accurate age for the tree by counting its rings. Officials believe it's between 200 and 250 years old.

The main house at Belmont Manor was built in 1738; the date is commemorated above the building's main entrance, next to the initials of its original owners, Caleb and Priscilla Dorsey.

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

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He said multiple people have visited Belmont to say goodbye to the elm in its final days. As a private residence for more than 200 years, then a conference center and the site of classes for Howard Community College's hospitality program before the building was purchased by the county in 2012, Belmont's front lawn, and the giant elm that presides over it, has been the scene of many memories.

Fred Dorsey, a local preservationist and a descendant of Caleb and Priscilla Dorsey, wrote in an email that the tree "has provided a shady respite over the years to generations of Dorsey, Hanson and Bruce families.

"It most certainly is taking with it many untold stories and special events it has witnessed," he added.

"Many, many people got married under this tree, and it's very emotional for a lot of people," said Marshall. "There have been tears shed."

The space on the lawn where the elm now stands will not be left empty for long. In the fall, Recreation and Parks staff plan to replace it with two new American elm cultivars, which are more resistant to Dutch Elm Disease.

"These new trees will be symbolic of the restoration that has taken place" on the property since the county began to renovate the building and its grounds in 2012, "returning the Manor House and property to its grandeur of past years," Dorsey said.

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