Arbutus Oak at root of community

Local residents care for 300-year-old tree that sits amid interstates

April 20, 2002|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Imagine a tree so mighty that the federal government built its interstate highway system around it.

Now more than 300 years old, the 68-foot-high Arbutus Oak sits amid a ribbon of highways -- southbound Interstate 95 and the outer loop of the Baltimore Beltway.

For the past 30 years, folks from Arbutus, the tiny blue-collar town in southwest Baltimore County, have made their way to the grassy knoll, where the giant white oak sits next to an off ramp, to pull weeds and clip branches.

"It's something that they thought was nice enough to keep, so much so that they built I-95 and [Interstate] 695 around it," said C.J. Bokman of the Arbutus Community Association, which has adopted the tree. "When something has been around that long, you want to keep it."

The first community group to take care of the oak was the Arbutus Lions Club, which came upon a sick tree facing its last days in 1972.

Weeds and small trees had grown in the underbrush, threatening to choke the tree and its muscular branches. The club brought in an expert from the U.S. Forestry Service, who deemed the oak "salvageable" with a little care.

That same year, the Lions Club dubbed the tree "The Arbutus Oak," hoping that it would become a symbol of the town much like the Wye Oak on the Eastern Shore and the stately Richards Oak in Cecil County.

Arbutus' ties to the oak are "definitely emotional because the tree is a living thing. And it's been around longer than any human," said Nancy Herwig, executive director of the mid-Atlantic chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture.

"In urban areas, having a tree last that long is very strange," Herwig said. "In urban areas, the tree life span is a lot shorter."

In the late 17th century, about when the oak began growing, roads were for the use of horses, Indians combed the landscape and settlements in the New World were ruled by an English king. George Washington wouldn't be born for more than 30 years.

By 1832, the oak stood on the property of Emanuel Wade, whose family owned the 85-acre property at Washington Boulevard and Sulphur Spring Road. In 1954, the federal government bought the land to build the interstates, but decided to ensure the oak would remain.

"The roads were realigned," said David Buck, a spokesman for the State Highway Administration. "The ramps were shifted so that it could be protected."

Federal officials calculated that the oak, with a trunk 12 feet in diameter, was more than 283 years old in 1976, when it was named a state Bicentennial Tree.

While excavating land around the oak for the interstates, workers found Indian artifacts, prompting townspeople to wonder whether Indians used the tree and its majestic 85-foot canopy as a meeting place.

Legend also has it that Lafayette and his men trooped past the oak in 1781 on the road to Elkridge during the Revolutionary War.

"It's probably the oldest tree in the area," said George Kendrick, coach of the Arbutus Golden Eagles semipro football team, who has lived in town for 60 years. "And it's still imposing when you see it."

The Lions Club erected a plaque on the site and someone -- likely vandals -- placed Emanuel Wade's tombstone inside the waist-high, wrought-iron protective railing that the club members built around the tree.

The Lions Club cared for the tree through the mid-1980s. The association took on the mantle in 1996 when club member Joe Freson was riding by the area.

"I saw it with my son and I said `Man, we've got an oak tree,'" Freson said. "What got my attention is its perfect shape. It is the epitome of an oak tree."

Club members enlisted the help of state Del. James E. Malone Jr. He was able to persuade the State Highway Administration to help paint the fence around the tree and to clear brush.

"It really needed a lot of work," Malone said. "People got together and we pulled the shrubs and painted the fence."

Malone said a lot of work is necessary to keep the oak alive.

"It's awesome, it's very, very awesome," Malone said of the tree. "For the government to move an interstate for it, you know it's awesome."

Despite its legend, many Arbutus residents have never seen the tree because of its location.

"Nobody knows where it is," said Donna Cameron of the Greater Arbutus Community Alliance. "It's hard to see because you're flying down the Beltway at 65 miles an hour."

The tree also hasn't yet become a symbol for the town, Cameron said.

"It gets attention now and then but it's not really a `Let's rally around the tree' kind of thing," she said.

It's been a year since anyone has worked on the tree. Bokman said he visited recently and found weeds and shrubs returning. The association is talking about when members can begin pulling weeds again.

"It's a pretty tree," Freson said. "We haven't been up there this year yet, but we will."

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