The 60,000-lb. headache of saving some historic wood

Landscaper seeks uses for felled Liberty Tree

June 11, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The nation's last Liberty Tree is taking on a whole new life in death.

Felled in October after a summer hurricane damaged it beyond saving, the historic tree that once stood in Maryland's capital is about to become a music-maker instead of a money drain for the Annapolis man on a mission to save its remains.

Taylor Guitars, producer of high-end acoustic guitars, plans to turn 30,000 pounds of Liberty Tree wood into a limited edition series of the instruments.

The company, based near San Diego, will buy the wood for $78,000, allowing the landscaper who salvaged the tree parts from dumps to recover his expenses and keep the rest of the wood - a little less than 30,000 pounds - as he continues to scout for other uses.

Pieces of the 400-year-old tulip poplar that 31-year-old Mark Mehnert rescued have been transformed into key fobs, plaques and paper, thanks to his efforts. Slivers of the wood might find their way into a children's book, and a local flute-maker has crafted a few prototype instruments from it.

A conservation group is trying to sprout descendants of the tree that grew on the St. John's College campus in Annapolis.

Mehnert, who plays guitar but doesn't own a Taylor, left a frantic message on a cold call to guitar company President Bob Taylor three weeks ago, offering him the wood but warning that he needed a quick decision.

"He understood my financial dilemma. He rose swiftly to the occasion," said Mehnert, who salvaged the hunks of the tree that St. John's decided were not worth saving, and is paying to keep them in climate-controlled warehouses in Jessup and Annapolis.

It was a done deal a week later, after Taylor's buyer viewed the wood. Tomorrow, Taylor will go to Jessup for his first peek at the wood, which he's seen on video. The next day, the wood will head for the West Coast to be milled and dried.

"By the time he called me, he's $68,000 into this project. ... " Taylor said. "To me, he is a hero for saving the thing."

The Liberty Tree was the last of the 13 grand trees under which colonists plotted revolution. The trees in each colony were so powerful a symbol of freedom that the British hacked down every one they could, even burning the stump of the one in Virginia.

In modern times, Johnnies - St. John's students - graduated and played croquet beneath the boughs of the landmark tree.

"It's interesting that the wood has such a fascination for people that [Mehnert] would go to such lengths," said Barbara Goyette, St. John's spokeswoman. "I say more power to him if he can do it."

The college has sold none of the wood it kept. It has given pieces to alumni, staff, students and history groups, including the Society of Senates Past, which made two gavels, one to display at the State House and another for its meetings. More wood is curing, some for ceremonial croquet mallets for the school's best-known sport, and some perhaps for artisans and other purposes, she said.

Taylor first heard about the Liberty Tree in the fall from N. Emory Knode, proprietor of Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe, a Catonsville acoustic instrument shop that sells Taylor guitars.

Knode dashed off a note, accompanied by a newspaper article about the downed tree, suggesting that Taylor - whose company sells 40,000 guitars a year and has made other themed lines - produce Liberty guitars.

"That was the last I thought of it, honestly," Knode said.

Taylor didn't think much about it until Mehnert's call, which was made by coincidence. Then, Taylor said, he thought about a family trip to Washington four years ago when he "found out what America is about," and envisioned inlaid designs of American history.

The idea first received a lukewarm reception at work, but "about 10 jaws dropped" when he said he had bought the wood.

Plans call for 234 numbered guitars, one for each year that the tree stood since 1765, when colonists fomented revolution under it. The back and sides of the guitar will be made from the Liberty Tree, with inlay on the fretboard. The guitar will make its debut about January 2002.

For Mehnert, Taylor's response was heaven-sent.

Flabbergasted that pieces of the historic tree had been thrown away, Mehnert tracked the wood St. John's did not want to two recycling centers in Virginia, where he bought the hacked-up chunks, and to the Anne Arundel County landfill in Millersville, where he arrived to see steam rising from fresh Liberty Tree mulch.

"You know what my expectation was? I would recover the wood and this would have been a very easy thing. That someone else would pick up where I left off, and maybe even purchase the wood for our troubles in storing and stabilizing it and that sort of thing, and take it on to its next form," Mehnert said.

Instead, he received on-the-job training in marketing and development. An auction he held in November was a bust. Expenses topped $4,000, but receipts didn't reach half that. As nonprofit and government groups considered buying, his expenses climbed.

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