Historic wood to go on sale

Man says he salvaged parts of Liberty Tree from two landfills


An Annapolis landscaper is preparing to sell what he claims are chunks of one of Maryland's most revered symbols of freedom -- the Liberty Tree cut down last month on the St. John's College campus.

Mark Mehnert, 30, said he was flabbergasted to find remnants of the storied tree in landfill and recycling facilities that turn dead trees into mulch.

The pieces he has recovered include two hunks of trunk with the "GO NAVY" sign vandals spray-painted on the tree before the 400-year-old tulip poplar was cut down Oct. 25.

"When I found out what happened with most of this wood, I found it incredulous," said Mehnert. He said he tracked down the wood at Anne Arundel County's Millersville landfill and two recycling operations in Northern Virginia.

At Millersville, Mehnert said, he was too late. Pieces of the last of the nation's 13 Liberty Trees, under whose branches Colonists rallied for revolution, had already been mulched.

The Liberty Tree was brought down after arborists declared it could not recover from old age and damage caused by Hurricane Floyd. The college kept the wood it considered salvageable; contractors hauled away the rest, much of it rotted.

Yesterday, in a rented warehouse space in Howard County, Mehnert displayed some of his wood on pallets. Twisted pipes that once held the tree together poke out of some pieces. Blackened rot shows on the interior of others, dirt and grass stuck in the bark.

Beginning next Friday, he plans to sell the wood. After recovering costs that Mehnert put at thousands of dollars, he said he will donate most of the profits to Christian charities.

"I am trying to return some of the small pieces to the public," he said. "I think there is a responsibility to put the wood in its best form. It probably varies according to each piece. Maybe it's a table top. Maybe it's a display; I don't know."

Mehnert said he will sell fist-sized nuggets for a dollar or less, plus some larger chunks, before auctioning about 50 pieces, each of which weighs nearly 300 pounds. The sale, at the Columbian Center in Severna Park, will start at 4: 30 p.m.

The biggest pieces, such as a 6-foot-by-7-foot portion of the trunk, will not be there. He hopes woodworkers, historians and others interested in the tree will want those and has put up a Web site, www.thelastone.org, to assess public interest.

St. John's College will not try to stop Mehnert's enterprise. "It's a free country," said college spokeswoman Barbara Goyette, adding, "Personally, I think it's kind of crass."

Is it really the Liberty Tree?

Maybe, said Goyette. "Our only comment would be that we know the wood we have is authentic."

The Liberty Tree was a landmark on the Annapolis campus. Students graduated beneath its boughs -- and played croquet.

Shortly before Hurricane Floyd struck, it had been declared a Maryland treasure. In June, University of Maryland researchers snipped shoots, with the Maryland Commission for Celebration 2000 hoping to create clones for the other 49 states.

Held together by 55 tons of concrete, bricks and metal, the tree was split by Hurricane Floyd. Arborists pronounced the 97-footer fatally wounded. Over the years, it had lost as much as 85 percent of its wood to decay. Of its 102-inch-diameter base, only 5 inches of solid wood remained.

"We were the guardians of this tree for over 200 years. We took as good care of it as we could. When it came time to take it down, we did as good a job as we could," Goyette said.

The school has given pieces to faculty, staff, students and alumni, and is entertaining ideas for mementos to make and sell from what's left. "We are not planning on making a killing from Liberty Tree wood," Goyette said.

Groundskeepers at St. John's reported people hanging around the tree when contractors removed it. Security guards were posted overnight, but "it's possible some of it got away," Goyette said.

At least one piece found its way onto the ebay.com Internet auction site a few weeks ago. College officials stopped looking when bids for the chunk reached $40.

"We kept what we thought was usable. We disposed of the rest," Goyette said.

"It's certainly possible he could have followed the trucks there as they left," she said.

Mehnert said he did just that -- watching contractors taking down the tree and following one of the trucks to a landfill in Virginia, where he bought the wood. He said he tracked down the second site in Virginia by telephone.

By the time he reached the third site, in Millersville, Mehnert said, he saw steam rising from what workers described as fresh Liberty Tree mulch.

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