CLINTON — “I think that I will never see a billboard as lovely as a tree. Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all.”
American poet, Ogden Nash, may have never visited Clinton, but the first line of his poem, “Song of the Open Road” could arguably have been about Clinton’s oldest, and most written about American sycamore tree.
You’ll find the unique “buttonwood,” as American sycamores are often called, and more formally known as “Platanus occidentals,” on the right side of College Street, heading west, just past Cleveland Place, east of Oriskany Creek. It stands 128 feet high, its white elbowed branches stretched out wide as if embracing the community where the tree has lived its entire 211-year life. The mottled (blotchy, spotted) bark makes it distinctive from all other trees near or far.
The Clinton landmark has stood on the front lawn of 104 1/2 College St. since its planter, Clark Wood, erected it in the spring of 1808, when he was just 18-years-old. For 59 years, until his death in 1867, Wood cared for his sapling, and watched it grow into a grand example of the species, according to documents preserved by the Clinton Historical Society.
For the next 101 years, less is known about the tree’s care and condition, except, at some point, it became infected with a fungal disease known as Anthracnose, a sickness that rots the tree from the inside out, and causes “leaf litter;” — leaves with yellow and pink spots, that along with dead branches, fall to the ground.
In a handwritten letter, penned in December 1973, Gladys Zoeckler, resident of the home where the tree is planted, thanked concerned Clinton citizen Mildred Yourtee for her interest in helping to preserve and care for the tree since 1968. The letter has been archived, along with several others and newspaper articles relating to the history of the tree at the Clinton Historical Society.
Eunice Zoeckler, daughter-in-law of Gladys, said her in-laws bought the single-family home in 1933 and lived there until the late 1980s. However, by 1968, family patriarch, Claude Zoeckler, was unable to take care of the tree as it should be. His wife Gladys, having been contacted through the mail by Yourtee, deferred it’s care to the civic-minded Clintonian, offering sincere appreciation for the help to preserve something so very special to their family, according to the same handwritten letter.
Eunice said many family photos were taken by that tree and of course, “all the high school graduation pictures.”
Yourtee, alongside her husband, Lawrence, a Hamilton college professor, and with the encouragement of fellow Clintonians, Grace Root, wife of Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute benefactor and Hamilton College Professor of Art, Edward Wales Root, plus, Hamilton College forester Pete Van Loon, wrote letters to friends, neighbors and interested parties asking for donations to care, treat and preserve the tree. More than 50 people in the Clinton community answered the call, including a few families who donated twice (the Root family), and raised $357.
With those donations the Yourtees contracted Rome tree surgeon, John Meyers, to regularly feed, cable the weakening branches and paint the cavities of the tree, according to letters from Yourtee to Meyers preserved by the historical society.
Meyers company cared for the tree for nearly 10 years before he retired in 1976. At that time, David L. Coons, the new head of the company, wrote to Mrs. Yourtee to say he would continue care of the tree. With no new donations coming in, it’s believed the Yourtees personally paid for the maintenance to their beloved hardwood and Coons often treated the ailing Clinton landmark at his own expense until 1978, when the Clinton Garden Club assumed the financial responsibility for the tree’s care, according to Clinton Courier articles.
In 1981, it became clear to the club they could no longer afford to pay for the tree’s care and asked the Town of Kirkland for assistance. The Town Board looked favorably upon the request and approved $100 annually for the tree’s maintenance, according to archived articles at the historical society.
Also, at that time, Hamilton College arborist, Terry Hawkridge, was contracted by the town to continue care of the towering ivory timber. Hawkridge explained the disease to the “Old World” sycamore actually “attacks the inside of the tree” and the beautiful tan and white bark on the tree’s exterior was wrapped around a mainly rotted core.
“Trees die slowly, top to back,” Hawkridge said. “What we do is support the top (with cables) and inject the tree with phosphorus to compartmentalize the decay at the base, keeping it from traveling up the tree and causing more damage.”
Phosphorus in plants is very important. It helps plants (and trees) convert other nutrients into usable building blocks with which to grow, according to gardeningknowhow.com.
Hawkridge said trees are like people in the sense that age, injury and neglect often has negative results on their overall health, especially when those injuries and age-related problems are left untreated. Hawkridge also said he took care of the tree for nearly 20 years until his semi-retirement forced him to discontinue service.
However, before Hawkridge’s retirement, the tree was placed on the state Historic Tree Registry, submitted by Clinton historian Philip Munson in 1990.
Records at the historical society show Cresswell Brothers Tree Services of Deansboro performed maintenance on the tree in 2014. A Bartlett Tree Experts letter of service description shows they performed treatment on the tree in June, 2017. That treatment consisted of 1- BOOST LIQUID fertilizer injection into the soil, directly onto the root system, approximately 8-12 inches below the ground surface.
According to the description, from Bartlett Tree Experts to the Town of Kirkland, the fertilization will allow the tree to push out the new leaf growth after losing its existing leaves to the disease. In addition to the fertilization, the tree was administered a “root flare” injection with Arbotect a product designed to “help suppress” Anthracnose for 2-3 seasons.”
Bartlett Tree Experts representative, Steven Blair, point man on this project since Bartlett started treating the tree, said most people wouldn’t notice the tree was really sick unless there was high volume of water or moisture in the air. Water, or humidity flares up the fungal disease and takes a serious toll.
“When the town [Town of Kirkland] called me the tree was having a really bad year,” Blair said. “If we had had a really dry spring, they wouldn’t have noticed anything; the tree would have looked normal. So my first order of business when we looked at it was to look at the leaves, because those leaves act as little solar panels and if the tree loses 90 percent of its leaves then it’s not creating enough energy to support the tree. So what would happen is if it had two or three years of bad Anthracnose infection, the tree could potentially decline, shut down and die.”
Blair said while he doesn’t think there is a great risk of that happening, it’s still possible, so precautions have to be taken.
“We fertilize first — that helps to replace the lost energy,” Blair said. “So the leaves re-bloom in the same season. And since the fertilizer works for at least a couple of years you get the same big, blooming, greener, more beautiful leaves the next season as you did the first.”
He said, “Secondly, we want to suppress the disease. We can’t spray a tree that size because the chemicals would spread over the road, over the water, and in the yard, so we use injectable fungicides. Once the fungicide is injected into the tree its drawn up the vascular system and protects it... sometimes for a year, sometimes two years.”
Some documentation at the historical society suggests the tree will live until sometime around the 2030s. However Blair said there really isn’t any way to determine the life expectancy of any tree. It all depends on weather, severity of disease and proper tree care, which includes appropriate pruning. Blair said since they’ve gone up that tree so often and cleared away so many of the dead branches, they’ve been able to evaluate all the cavities, finding something very interesting the last time they were up there.
“It has a very active honey bee hive inside of it,” Blair said.
Asked if that was a detriment to the tree’s condition as well, Blair laughed as he answered.
“No, not really, but it sure could be a big detriment for the person doing the pruning.” Blair said.