Oh, how the mighty has fallen

Tree: Mr. Mustache, a 375-year-old red oak that stood as the nation's largest, dies alone in Anne Arundel County.

August 28, 1999|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

Apparently it's true: If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one around to hear it, it doesn't make a sound.

Such, it seems, was the fate of Mr. Mustache, a 375-year-old Maryland red oak that toppled over last year and was cleared away with almost no notice.

His death, in fact, might have gone unrecorded if this summer's drought had not led a reporter to inquire about how the state's historic trees were surviving.

Surely, Mr. Mustache deserved better.

An Anne Arundel County native, he reigned for 25 years as the largest southern red oak in the nation.

They found him on Sept. 17, 1998, at his home: a weedy knoll overlooking the West River, 15 minutes from Annapolis, near Galesville. His caretakers believe he sprang there from a tiny acorn sometime around 1624.

Mr. Mustache was so old that Native Americans could have climbed his branches to watch the first Europeans paddle in from the sea. In his time, he saw the forest around him planted with corn, tobacco and peas; he saw other trees chopped down to build fences, houses and farms.

He got his name from children who thought his lowest branches hung in the shape of a man's mustache.

But it was not until late in his life that other people really noticed him. There was always a small number, local photographers and painters mostly, who stopped and admired him. Robert Cheston would drive home down Cumberstone Road and see a car pulled over at the bend, and he'd know why.

What a sight Mr. Mustache was. He stood 104 feet tall -- 10 stories -- in his glory days. His branches spread a canopy 135 feet wide. His trunk measured 27 feet, 7 inches in circumference. He was a good-looking tree, too: His leaves were green, his bark was thick and furrowed. Even when he was ill, he didn't show it.

The state's Forest Service declared him the largest of his species as far back as 1956, and he kept the title until his death. The American Forest organization said Mr. Mustache was not only the largest in Maryland, he was the largest in the nation. He was a national champion.

Maryland, fittingly, is where the big tree program began. State forester Fred W. Besley compiled his "Noted Tree List" in 1925, and the notion spread to other states and eventually evolved into a national competition.

Foresters take three measurements: circumference, height and crown spread; assign each a number of points, then add them together. The tree with the most points wins.

Mr. Mustache, who garnered an impressive 468 points, was the last of four national champions that once grew on the historic Cedar Park farm. The horse chestnut and the red cedar fell; the American beech was struck by lightning.

Mr. Mustache kept the national spot for more than two decades -- since 1971 -- and it wasn't until the last year of his life that an upstart from Georgia topped him by 33 points.

Despite the fame, the award never brought him the celebrity enjoyed by Maryland's most famous old tree, the Wye Oak. Without state money, Mr. Mustache was never strung up with cables like the Wye Oak, and without the props, he was doomed.

Neighbors remember the day was hot. There wasn't a breath of air. Cheston was driving home around 2 p.m. that September afternoon. What he saw in the road was surreal.

"I thought I was dreaming because it was one of these things where all of a sudden you see this huge, huge mass of leaves and branches and it was just unreal, and finally I realized it was the red oak that had fallen. I stopped the car and got out and just kind of had my mouth open, looking at it."

It looked as though the tree had split in three pieces. The left and right portions fell in opposite directions, the back fell forward, tearing out chunks of a hickory tree before landing in a field across the road.

"I thought it was really poignant," Cheston said. "That tree sustained hurricanes, sustained droughts, sustained blizzards, you name it -- and it decided to give up the ghost on a dead calm day."

It took five men on the county payroll five hours, using chain saws, a front-end loader and a grade-all, to clear the corpse.

Nothing could have saved Mr. Mustache, said A. John Blake, an arborist at Wye Tree Experts Inc., the company that pruned three cords of dead wood and fed the old fellow 400 gallons of vitamins in 1995.

When a tree's time comes, there's not much a man can do.

Blake believes it was a squirrel, or maybe a raccoon, that scratched the hole in the trunk. Fungus followed the creature in, and by the time Mr. Mustache fell, the hole was big enough for Blake to stand in and continued up the tree.

The stump is still there today, slowly being covered in a shroud of poison ivy and Virginia creeper.

Blake could have braced Mr. Mustache with cables, but that would have cost a lot, and you wonder if he would have wanted to end his life propped up like a sapling.

Mr. Mustache is survived by two offspring. They grow nearby.

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