History on the demise of the mighty elm tree

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History on the demise of the mighty elm tree

A pages past article in the July 28 Sussex Sun told of two cases of Dutch Elm disease being reported in Menomonee Falls during the month of July in 1960.

“This brings the total to 20 in Waukesha County. American Elm trees are the largest tree in Waukesha County and make up approximately one quarter of the trees in the county. It is expected that this disease will wipe out this type of tree,” reads the summary from an old news story.

Fifty years ago the great forest of mighty American Elms started disappearing from Sussex-Lisbon with the arrival of the dreaded Dutch Elm Disease. In 1960, one fourth of the trees in the area were part of the Elm tree family. Elm trees can grow to be up to 100-feet-tall with trunks that are often 5 feet thick or larger. Today giant elms are very rare locally and the skeletons of the recent dead elm can be seen. Adjacent to Melinda Weaver Park on Maple Avenue are two of these dead trees with a third looking like it won’t be around much longer. Meanwhile Carol Moody on Old Mill Lane recently had a dead elm cast a branch up against her windows in a wind storm breaking wood all over her landscaping and cracking a window. The only good thing that came of it was some firewood.

Historically around 1905 there was a massive elm tree on Sussex’s Main Street that was on the south side of the road adjacent to the bridge over Sussex Creek. It was so cherished by the local citizens that when a concrete sidewalk was put in, a loop around the tree’s trunk was constructed. A picture of this happening was taken and used on a local post card.

Today, there are three streets in Sussex that are named after the elm: Elm Avenue, Elm Drive and Elmwood Avenue. Elmwood Avenue platted in 1950 had the developers Carl and Louis Marx plant an elm tree on the roadside of every lot in the subdivision. All of those trees have now died or been cut down with the last one being on the Carol Braeger lot.

George Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1773 at Cambridge, Mass. The significant thing was that the honor was be stood under a massive elm tree that hence forward became known as the “Washington Elm.”

According to 80-year Sussex resident Austy Treloar, at one time elm trees were on both sides of Sussex Main Street and they grew to a giant size with the trees forming a canopy over the Main thoroughfare forming almost a living green cathedral for the spring, summer and fall seasons. The trees began to disappear in the mid-1950s when Main Street was widened, but started a comeback with Maples, however in the 1960s the remaining elms were wiped out by Dutch Elm disease. The concrete work over and adjacent to the maples tended to kill these surface-rooted trees also.

Dutch Elm Disease is spread by a bark beetle that transfers a fungi called Ophiostoma novo-ulmi. It was first detected in Holland in the 1920s thus the name, Dutch Elm Disease. It particularly hit hard on varied species of American elm trees.

It was first detected around New York City in 1930 and then 30 years later it was detected in Wisconsin. Menomonee Falls had two cases reported in the summer of 1960 and there were other reports in about 20 Wisconsin communities. Defending the disease was hard and very cost prohibitive for the many affected communities.

Accompanying this feature is a late 1930s or early 1940s photo of Sussex Land O’Lakes baseball diamond with a game being played. It shows the exact area which today is the entrance of the Pauline Haass Public Library and in the background is the Elsie Weyer Park (civic center). The backdrop of this photo shows an Elm forest by the Sussex Creek and the future Old Mill Lane. The trees and the creek were homerun territory for batters. Notable in this collection of elms is one particularly large specimen called the “Saddle Elm” as it was two trees grown together that shoot off at different 30-degree angles that formed a saddle that children loved to climb on. These elm trees started to die in the mid-1960s and as they died they were cut down leaving a stump today.

Elms have many historic uses. Pioneers used the slipper elm’s inner bark to extract a juice that was a cure for sore throats. Elms were also used for firewood, shade, constructed into barrel staves, wagon wheels, wooden farm equipment and the rock elm was especially prized for boat building.

Today elms are somewhat rare, but if one looks for them, there are a few around to be found. The tree is a prolific seed producers and the feathery, light wind-blown seed can travel far but usually the Dutch Elm disease gets to the sprigs before they have much of a chance to grow.