Acoustic sounds of patriotism

Craftsman turns Md. Liberty Tree wood into guitars

April 10, 2002|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Once, American colonists plotted revolution beneath its boughs. Now guitar enthusiasts will be able to plunk out patriotic tunes on instruments made from its felled trunk.

The remains of the last standing American Liberty Tree, taken down in Annapolis in October 1999 after being damaged by a hurricane, have found a second life in the bodies of 400 custom-made guitars fashioned by a California maker. Eight of them - all spoken for - returned to Maryland last week to be sold by the Catonsville music shop owner who helped bring the guitar maker and the historic lumber together.

Two-and a-half years ago, N. Emory Knode, owner of the Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe, frantically faxed a newspaper story about the felled tree to Bob Taylor, co-founder of Taylor Guitars in San Diego. The remains of the 400-year-old tree, which served as a revolutionary rallying point for citizens of Annapolis in the 1770s, were going to be discarded.

The story spurred Taylor's interest. He later flew to a Jessup warehouse where the wood was being stored and bought 30,000 pounds of it for $78,000. He's fashioned them into 400 acoustic guitars bearing depictions of Colonial flags and a scrolled portion of the Declaration of Independence on the fret board. The instruments will sell for $8,000.

As Taylor Guitars' fourth-largest dealer - and the guy who helped alert Taylor to the scrapped tree's existence - Knode received eight of the polished guitars with the chocolate and vanilla swirl. He's sold seven and will keep one. Getting the first guitars, Knode said, "was an absolute honor."

Taylor said that all 400 of the guitars made from the Liberty Tree wood have already been sold through his Top 100 dealers across the country.

"They're gone," Taylor said. "The response to the guitar itself has really been overwhelming."

Disaster strikes

The genesis of the guitar project was the day in October 1999 when Hurricane Floyd ripped a 15-foot crack into the trunk of the Liberty Tree, which had stood for centuries on the campus of St. John's College in Annapolis.

Arborists then decided that the last survivor of the original Liberty Trees - one in each of the first 13 colonies - could not be saved.

Colonists had gathered under the Liberty Trees to plot revolution. The trees became such a powerful symbol that the British tried to chop as many down as they could. The Annapolis tree had survived the British, and also fire, lightning strikes, decay and even a prank in the 1840s when schoolboys touched off gunpowder in its hollow.

Landscapers took down the 97-foot tulip poplar, and the salvageable wood was given to the college. But an Annapolis landscaper, Mark Mehnert, retrieved the discarded wood after being outraged that it had been sent to two Virginia recycling centers and the Anne Arundel County landfill in Millersville.

Independent of Knode's contact with Taylor, Mehnert also placed a call to the guitar maker.

"He's the real hero, if you ask me," Taylor said of Mehnert.

After Mehnert's call, Taylor flew out to inspect the wood. Having visited Washington, he said, he got caught up in the patriotic fervor the tree represented.

"I thought, `The Liberty Tree,'" Taylor said. "It would be so incredible to make guitars out of the Liberty Tree."

Mehnert sold the wood to Taylor to help recoup the $108,000 he had spent saving and storing it. Now that the guitars are made, Mehnert said he sees worth in his effort.

"I've seen a picture of what these look like and they're stunning," he said. "I'm glad the wood is going to something where it will be remembered for what it stood for."

Patriotic symbol

"This is the most excitement about a single item that I have seen," said Knode, whose shop is on Frederick Road in downtown Catonsville. "There is history, there is something patriotic for someone to rally around, and it makes you feel good."

Knode sold his first $8,000 guitar to Dr. Thomas Saunders, an Annapolis veterinarian who wanted a piece of history. The average price for a high-end acoustic guitar is about $2,500, Knode said.

"I think it's worth every penny," Saunders said of the Liberty Tree edition. "How can history be placed against finances?"

Larry Garton, a lawyer from Lutherville, agreed. Garton also bought one of the Liberty Guitars from Knode. "The historical significance of this is phenomenal," he said. "These things are going to be collectors' items."

Taylor said 5 percent of the profits from the $3.2 million in sales from the guitars will go to the American Forests Historic Trees Nursery Project.

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