Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

January 3, 2013

Dalton column: Devastation of town trees

Bill Dalton
The Andover Townsman

---- — “Nothing can replace for this generation the trees that have been entirely destroyed,” wrote Andover Townsman editor John N. Cole, on Dec. 2, 1921. Just a week earlier, in his editorial of Nov. 25, 1921, he had joined the Andover Village Improvement Society in the fight to save trees from the ravages of tent and gypsy moth larvae.

Founded in 1894, the Andover Village Improvement Society (AVIS) had as one of its goals the preservation of trees. It would be hard to find a town that has been so lucky to have such an organization. Although in recent decades its success has centered on acquiring land for conservation and the creation of woodland trails, in its early years some of its projects were smaller. One of those early projects was fighting tent moth larvae by paying children to bring larvae nests to school in order that the nests be destroyed.

During the foliage season in 1921, the tent and gypsy moth larvae coincidentally appeared together en masse, stripping the town’s trees. My father once told me that cars skidded on the larvae and their droppings. I remember the gypsy moth attack in the early 1980s when larvae’s leaf chewing was an audible droning sound while they stripped trees bare. We wondered if stripped trees would survive – almost all did.

It was bitterly ironic to Cole that, within 72 hours of the publication of his anti-moth editorial, the moth problem slipped into the background, because on Nov. 28, 1921, the “most devastating storm on record” (Townsman) destroyed many of Andover’s trees and downed its power and telephone lines. It was a storm that went far beyond what some people like to call “nature’s pruning.” It was destruction on a large scale.

The Townsman’s front page headline after the storm was “HAVOC WROUGHT BY ICE STORM.” The story accompanying the headline described how, on Sunday, snow and sleet loaded the trees with a great burden, and high winds finished nature’s escapade. Throughout Monday, said the Townsman, the “crack and crash of falling boughs were heard all over.” Elm trees, particularly on Phillips Academy’s campus, suffered mightily. Several historic trees were ruined, one of them an iconic chestnut tree that stood next to the Memorial Hall Library.

World War I veterans likened Andover’s landscape to that of shell-torn France. The ice was so pervasive that the man in charge of restoring power received a bad shock while leaning against a tree; the ice in the tree was electrically charged by a broken power line that sent electricity through the ice all the way to the ground. Those trees that didn’t die from the damage lost their symmetry, and the oldest, most historic trees, were so badly damaged that most would be taken down. There have been many damaging ice storms since, but none as bad as this one in Andover.

If Mr. Cole had lived long enough he would have been saddened to see the devastation that came from the heavyweight of all New England storms, the Great Hurricane of 1938, which ripped down hundreds of trees in Andover and hundreds of thousand trees throughout the Northeast. Many of those trees destroyed in Andover had recovered from the ice storm of ‘21.

In 1954, Hurricane Carol, a lightweight compared to 1938’s storm because of Carol’s narrow destructive path, hit Andover with a hard uppercut on the button and knocked down hundreds more trees. The Park went from being shady to being sunny.

In a span of 33 years, Andover’s trees suffered three terrible storms and nothing since compares.

And the trees’ woes weren’t confined to storms. Andover and the rest of the country lost its American chestnut trees from a blight that struck early in the 20th Century. Known for their excellent wood, delicious chestnuts, and broad canopy, Andover’s shade was diminished by over 30 percent when the American chestnut disappeared. Shortly following was another widespread blight, the Dutch elm disease, which wiped out more than 80 percent of the town’s towering elms.

There has been a long stretch of time with no major attack on our trees, with maple trees becoming the chief beneficiary. While not as beautiful as the majestic elm and American chestnut trees, maples are useful and do their job.

Bill Dalton writes a weekly column for the Andover Townsman. His email address is BillDalton@AndoverTownie.com.