One of Maine's most celebrated citizens is being mourned this week. Former professional logger Frank Knight of Yarmouth, who spent more than fifty years protecting New England's oldest tree, passed away the morning of May 14. His son says he will be buried in a coffin made from the 217-year-old tree, known as "Herbie," which was cut down in 2010 after succumbing to Dutch elm disease.
Knight became the tree's unofficial warden in 1956, when "Herbie" and Yarmouth's other elm trees were first being infected by Dutch elm disease. Through careful pruning, Knight and other local workers managed to save Herbie not just that time in 1956, but more than a dozen times after that.
By 2010, the tree had grown a height of 110 feet, but years of fighting the fungus that causes Dutch elm disease had taken its toll. The tree was cut down that January.
"I hate to see it in this condition but nothing lasts forever," Knight told the Associated Press on the day the old tree finally fell. "I can't mourn about him. I'm just grateful we had him for so long," Knight said.
The Maine Forest Service used powerful magnification to count the rings in Herbie's trunk after the tree was cut down, revealing its age. They said it was probably planted in 1793, around the time that George Washington began his second term as president.
Wood from the tree also made its way to some of Maine's artisan carpenters, where it was crafted into a variety of ornaments, tables, kitchenware and other products that are available through the town of Yarmouth. An initial auction of these keepsakes raised $15,000, and what became known as the Herbie Project has since raised more than $45,000. The money raised through the sale of these products goes to the Yarmouth Tree Trust to plant new street trees in the town.
And now Herbie's wood will make its way to one more product: a coffin for the man who stood by it for so many decades.
Although Knight chopped down many a tree in his younger days, he also helped to keep quite a few, not just Herbie, from being cut down. "He used to joke that he probably took down more trees than he saved," friend Deb Hopkins told the Portland Press Herald. "But he did save a lot of trees," Hopkins said. "Herbie was the apple of his eye. He was passionate about that one tree because it was so beautiful." Hopkins, 56, followed in Knight's footsteps as Yarmouth's tree warden. She says there are nine more elm trees in the town, including one on Main Street that Knight said was almost as beautiful as his beloved Herbie.
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