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Historic honey locust tree comes down in Greencastle

February 26, 2001

Historic honey locust tree comes down in Greencastle



By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer


GREENCASTLE, Pa. - Until it died last year, a gigantic honey locust tree that graced the front yard of an historic rural Greencastle farmhouse was a national champion.

Now only emptiness fills the 90 feet of sky the giant once occupied. The ground below is littered with logs, some as big as a Volkswagen Beetle. They remain as monuments to one of nature's great creations.

The tree - a victim of age and insects - was cut down and is now being reduced to firewood and logs for a split rail fence.

The tree stood on a 9-acre farmstead owned by Dale and Karen Thatcher in the 14000 block of Williamsport Pike. A plaque by the front door of the house says the land was sold originally by Thomas and Robert Penn, sons of Pennsylvania founder William Penn, on Nov. 1, 1735, to William Berryhill.

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The Thatchers bought the property in 1997 and restored the 1774 stone farmhouse. They are restoring the large stone barn on the property that was built in 1801.

Their tree until last month shared national co-championship with a similar size honey locust in Frederick County, Md., said Jen Pietruski, spokesman for American Forest, a national conservation group in Washington. The organization maintains and publishes the National Register of Big Trees.

The register lists the largest specimens of native and naturalized trees in the U.S.

The Thatchers' locust was placed on the register in 1991, Pietruski said. It stood 90 feet high and 223 inches in circumference, and its crown spread more than 88 feet. That added up to 345 points in American Forests' formula for measuring trees, Pietruski said.

The Frederick County tree, owned by a family on Singerboard Road in Ijamsville, was nominated to the register in 1999, Pietruski said. It is 100 feet high, 226 inches in circumference and also has a crown spread of 88 feet, for a total of 348 points.

No one knows how old the Thatchers' tree was when it died. Karen Thatcher said she counted nearly 300 rings by the time she got to the center of the stump.

A large hole stretching nearly a yard across the center at the trunk at one point is evidence the tree was dying from the center out. Thatcher said there was no way to estimate how many more rings there would be if the center were intact.

She said she and her husband did their best to save the tree once they learned it was in trouble.

"We knew it was dying when we bought the house in 1997," she said.

The couple called in tree experts for help and followed several recommendations, but to no avail, Karen Thatcher said.

"It leafed out well for the first two years, less in the third year and then by the last year-and-a-half it started to lose its bark," Dale Thatcher said. "Once the bark comes off you know the tree is gone."

Once they realized the tree was dead, the Thatchers knew it had to come down because it was threatening their house. They called several area tree service companies, but none wanted to tackle the job of removing such a large tree so close to a house, Karen Thatcher said.

Leonard Hege, who owns the neighboring farm, looked at it and offered to take it down with Dale Thatcher's help.

"They started at the top with a bucket truck," Karen Thatcher said.

When it came time to cut the main section, they tied ropes to it and attached them to two tractors to ensure that the tree would fall away from the house, she said.

"We were all praying big time then," she said.

Dale Thatcher, a commercial artist with a small Rockville, Md., printing company, has been spending his weekends cutting the tree into logs small enough to handle. He estimates there are about 40 cords of locust wood lying around his yard.

A sign in front of the lane leading to their farm advertises locust wood for sale at $45 a cord. "U cut and haul," the sign says.

"Locust wood is very hard. You can't even drive a nail into it, but it burns really well," he said.

Thatcher said one man came by and bought a huge chunk that he plans to cut into small pieces and sell as historic artifacts. Another man looked until he found the right crooked piece of small branch.

"He said he wanted to make a cane out of it," Thatcher said.

Thatcher is splitting off hundreds of 8-foot sections to create about 200 feet of Virginia rail fence from his house to the barn.

"It splits really easy," he said.

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