Source: The Corydon Democrat

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Constitution Elm gets makeover

by Alan Stewart

July 22, 2014

After years of having a flat black color due to creosote and paint that was applied about 50 years ago, the Constitution Elm in downtown Corydon is returned to a more natural color July 15 as a layer of tung oil is applied to preserve the wood and ward off insects. On the left working on a gaping hole in the historic trunk is Chris Stock, owner of Philadelphia Salvage; on the right, behind the ladder, is Lori Arnold, owner of Philadelphia-based Arnold Wood Conservation. Photos by Alan Stewart
Creosote is appropriate to use on things like railroad ties and telephone poles. Perhaps not so much on other things, like, say, a tree estimated to have been a seedling some 36 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed.

The most famous tree (or what's left of it) in Harrison County — the Constitution Elm — received a makeover recently as two workers from Pennsylvania used years of knowledge to turn the flat-black trunk close to what it may have looked like prior to a creosote bath given some 50 years ago.

Lori Arnold, owner of Philadelphia-based Arnold Wood Conservation, and Chris Stock, owner of Philadelphia Salvage, started working on the Elm on July 12 and completed their work three days later.

Outsiders to Harrison County may wonder why more than $19,000 was spent on rehabbing the trunk of a dead tree. When the federal government moved to grant Indiana statehood in 1816, the prospective state needed a constitution. That's when 43 delegates convened at the Statehouse in Corydon in June 1816 to draft the charter. The summer session was so hot that the delegates sought refuge in the shade under the giant elm — estimated to have been a seedling in 1740 — and drafted the first constitution for the state.

At its peak, the tree was about 50 feet tall, had a trunk diameter of five feet and a spread of about 132 feet.

A few years after it died in 1925, the tree was pruned down by Godfrey Faith, Gilbert Chambers and Perry Huntsinger at a cost of $51.50 and 34 wagon loads of wood were taken to 28 sites in and around Corydon; an eight-panel, sloped roof with asphalt shingles was placed atop the remains. The roof stayed in place until the current, giant sandstone structure was built in 1936.

At some point, not only was the entire tree covered with creosote, the preservative was also injected into holes drilled into the trunk. The holes were then covered over. There were also places in the tree that were patched with concrete and plaster.

Several people, including members of the Daughters of the American Revolution's Hoosier Elm chapter, stopped by the historical landmark to view the recent renovation. Arnold said she's related to Benedict Arnold on her grandfather's side, which is one of the things that makes her a DAR member.

"I think that helped them understand that I appreciate work like this and I value history," Arnold said.

Arnold earned a degree in art history from Keene State College in New Hampshire and worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which eventually led to her focus on wood conservation. She's done a variety of jobs, including providing recommendations and consultation for the conservation and restoration of Andrew Jackson's First Hermitage log cabins.

On the bottom two-thirds of the trunk, the pair used brushes and a type of degreaser poured into a power-washer to remove the creosote, which was layered deeper in some areas more than others, and then used liquid stripper to remove paint in the upper third of the tree's remains.

Also, two large holes at the base of the trunk were filled by Stock with wood from an elm that was approximately the same age as the Constitution Elm, copper shims were inserted at the tree base to ward off insects as the copper oxidizes and, finally, the entire tree was covered in tung oil, which also will fight insect infestation and fungus.

The tung oil turned the ash-colored trunk a rich, deep brown color and — for the first time in a long time — the Elm actually looks like wood.

"Those who made the decision to put creosote on and in the tree probably did what they thought was right at the time, Arnold said. "We could be out here for a month or two and not get every bit of creosote or paint off. There are places where it's not going to happen no matter how much scrubbing we do. The great thing is that everything we are doing is reversible. That way if something comes out 50 years down the road, our work can be reversed and the new way applied. It's very good for the tree and the life it has in it."

While scraping creosote from the tree, the pair located a heart containing "AA + CC" that appeared to have been carved possibly in 1969.

"Everyone who has stopped by seems to have taken ownership of this tree, which I find exciting because, where I am from, preservation is viewed a little differently," Arnold said. "The tree was an interesting challenge because of how we had to adapt to what we thought we had, which was creosote on the entire tree, to paint having been applied at the top.

"This is a piece of history for the state of Indiana and people here in Corydon and hopefully people will appreciate the work that was done."