DECATUR — Dr. Stephen Huss has spent much of his life in and around the Decatur Club, so it was a bit of a surprise when he recently came across a strategically placed rock at the corner of Prairie Avenue and Church Street.
“I was just going into the Decatur Club, and I parked near that rock and thought 'I bet I've seen this a thousand times,' but it never really grabbed me like it did this particular day,” the retired orthopedic surgeon said. “And I looked at it and thought, 'This is really interesting.'”
The rock has been there since 1932, marking the spot of a tree honoring the 200th anniversary of George Washington's birth. Today is the 287th anniversary.
Attached to the rock is a plaque that reads:
“George Washington Bicentennial Tree
Planted by Junior Association of Commerce”
“From time to time, I will find a monument in Decatur and I photograph it and research it,” Huss said, and this situation was no different. Huss went to work learning the history behind the rock and trying to determine if the elm tree situated behind it is the same one referenced by the marker.
According to the Herald & Review's archives, a tree was planted at the site on April 17, 1931, in commemoration of Arbor Day.
A ceremony was led by the Junior Association of Commerce (the predecessor to the local Junior Chamber of Commerce, commonly refereed to as the Jaycees), which formed in 1931. One of the primary objectives of the group was a “clean-up, paint-up and tree planting campaign.”
To that end, the group created a nursery in Faries Park, growing trees that would be transplanted throughout the city, especially along main thoroughfares.
In April 1932, the association's tree committee voted to buy a stone marker to be placed at the base of the tree the group planted near the Decatur Club as part of the George Washington Bicentennial Celebration.
The effort to plant 10 million trees across the country in Washington's honor was spearheaded by American Tree Association, in cooperation with the George Washington Bicentennial Commission.
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“Ten million tributes, enduring and straight growing, which will be as evergreen as is the memory of George Washington in the hearts of 130,000,000 people, recording the fact that he is ever the 'first in the hearts of his countrymen,'” wrote Charles Lathrop Pack, president of the American Tree Association at the time. “These are not to be monoliths of marble, not statues of static stone, or dun-colored copper and bronze, nor a eulogium written upon perishable parchment; but growing things, alive with a life emblematical of that living nation which the First President guided into being.”
Herald & Review archives make mention of numerous trees being planted across the area as part of the celebration.
For Huss, he wondered if the tree growing there today is the same tree planted in 1931, taking into account how Dutch elm disease decimated the American elm population in the early 20th century.
His research determined it probably is.
“This tree is an American elm and could be 90 years old, but could have been replanted 65 years ago if elm disease killed the original,” Huss wrote in a 2018 Facebook post. “But if that happened, why would one ever plant a second elm. I suspect this is the original tree. A rare survivor.”
Examining a Herald & Review picture from 1932, Randy Callison, Decatur city forestry and property supervisor agreed, saying it “very likely” is the original tree.
“By the picture from the 1930s and the picture today, it is very likely it is the same tree,” he said.
If that is the case, Callison said its location probably played a role in its survival.
Because of their beauty and drought tolerance, elm trees were very popular and were usually planted close to one other to enhance streetscapes. Callison said their proximity to one another made them easy pickings for the elm bark beetles that spread the disease.
Callison suspects the lack of other elm trees around it may have prevented it from being attacked.
As for its size, Huss and Callison both mentioned its tough, urban surroundings which likely stunted its growth. Even when it was planted, there was only a small area of exposed ground amid the concrete.
“For an elm, it is probably about the third of the size it normally would be if it had a lot more area to uptake nutrients and water,” said Callison, who has observed the tree during his nearly 30-year tenure with the city. “Because of the limitations, that's probably as big as it will ever be.”