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Preserving the Elm

Preserving the Elm
Preserving the Elm
Bob Rumple of Duke Energy photographs the top of the trunk of the Constitution Elm in downtown Corydon last Wednesday afternoon. The photos of the trunk and the sandstone structure will be used to help decide the best way to preserve what remains of the Elm. Photo by Alan Stewart (click for larger version)

Last week, one of the biggest rumors circulating about the Constitution Elm wasn’t that it had died from Dutch Elm disease (it hadn’t; according to a DNA test a couple of years ago, it actually died from Elm Phloem Necrosis). The rumor was actually that the state of Indiana didn’t care about a piece of Indiana history.
Unlike the Dutch Elm rumor, the Elm is not going anywhere.
Officials with the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites last Wednesday afternoon joined more than 20 other people to watch Bob Rumple and Duke Energy donate their time to climb into a bucket truck and photograph the Elm’s remaining trunk and the roof of the sandstone structure that surrounds the Elm to see what additional preservation efforts could be made at the site.
As nearly every fourth-grader in Harrison County and other Indiana counties is taught, 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.
In 1916, beetles first attacked the tree and, by 1924, the tree was dead. A few leaves sprouted the following spring, but they died before reaching maturity. 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, 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, creosote was also injected into holes drilled into the trunk. The holes were then covered over. There are also places in the tree that have been patched with concrete and plaster.
Other than that, not much else is known about preservation efforts for the Elm, Link Ludington, chief of historic preservation, said last week.
‘I’ve been in this position seven years and have done a lot of research into it, but I’m not able to find much else that has been done to preserve the tree, and that’s why we’re here today,’ Ludington said.
Last week’s examination of the roof ‘ the first in at least a decade ‘ showed a rubber membrane covering with copper flashing and some dead leaves near a drain located on the southeast corner. A football was also spotted on the roof of the structure.
Ludington explained that the state has been working on preserving the Elm for a while and only recently has taken the actual steps to look for the expertise to find what can be done after the tree remains have been examined.
‘Back last spring, we had a team here and took samples, and a big problem is that things that were done when the trunk was preserved were the best that they knew of at the time. Years ago, they apparently impregnated this thing with creosote, used some concrete to make it more structurally stable and it’s got other coatings painted on it. The key is what can we do from here?’ Bruce Beesley, vice president for historic sites with the Indiana State Museum, said. ‘It’s a process. It takes a long time. If you call an expert, they aren’t necessarily going to drop everything they do to come to Corydon. We have to wait and do the best we can. We appreciate the community’s interest, and we want them to know we’re on it, but we also want to point out that it takes time. It takes a lot of time. We have the same goal they do, which is to have this looking the best it can for the bicentennial’ in 2016.
Beesley said the state will develop a plan, find out the cost (some money has already been budgeted for the project) and then go from there. A public meeting will take place in Corydon to discuss the plan, how they came up with it and why they are doing it, he said.
‘You just do what the best you know to do at the time. After we do this, maybe 75 years from now somebody will ask ‘What was Beesley thinking? Idiot!’ ‘ Beesley said. ‘We’re on it. It just takes a long time. It’s not unusual for us to have a project that lasts two or three years. I’m not saying this is going to last that long. We just want to make sure it’s done right.’