Goodbye Old Friend

September 1, 2017

By Katherine Keller

South Shore Park’s iconic beech tree has died

The trunk of the State Champion European Copper Beech in South Shore Park will remain in place for a time as local groups, Friends of South Shore Park among those, consider ways to memorialize the tree. PHOTO Katherine Keller

I hate to see it go,” said Lauri Gorton, who lives on Estes Street across from the State Champion European Copper Beech tree in South Shore Park.

The iconic Bay View tree has reached the end of its life and is giving way to Milwaukee County Parks arborists, who began removing its limbs August 9. The beech succumbed to old age and a fungal disease.

“The tree is so significant,” Polly Caster said. She was among a group of people who gathered at the tree to pick up pieces that the arborists placed at its base for those who wanted to pickup a souvenir. “It’s been like a neighbor. I see it every day when I walk my dog.” Caster has lived on Mabbett Avenue since the early 90s.

Jan Grimes has lived on Superior Street since 1985, and like Caster, has admired the tree for decades.

“I see it every season. It’s delicate leaves in spring and fully leafed out in summer. It was magnificent,” Caster said.

Log Ladies Jan Grimes and Polly Caster took a break from a painting project to gather slabs and logs that were cut from the Eurpoean Copper Beech tree in South Shore Park. PHOTO Katherine Keller

The stately beech is believed to have begun life in the mid-1800s. That means it may have been part of the South Shore landscape for about 160 to 170 years.

The beech would have sprung up on the land some years after Elijah and Zebiah Estes purchased their land in 1835 or 1836 and developed their home and farm on the land above Lake Michigan. A section of their land was later incorporated into what is now South Shore Park.

Residue from the Bay View rolling mills likely settled on its limbs. Perhaps social activist and “civic saint” Beulah Brinton strolled past the tree as she introduced new immigrant families to the developing village of Bay View.

The tree survived the many changes to the land that nurtured it over a period of 16 or so decades.

In 2016 we reported that Milwaukee County Parks Forestry Supervisor Gregg Collins said that the majestic beech tree was in poor health and “over-mature.” In other words, the tree had exceeded its species’ typical lifespan. He compared it to a human being who was 105 years old.

Collins said that beginning in 2012 the tree lost several large limbs and that missing bark was evidenced at the base of the trunk. Missing bark indicated tissue dieback, another symptom of a tree in decline.

In 2015, he hired Wachtel to examine the tree. He said they observed canopy thinning, gypsy moths, aphids, carpenter ants, more tissue dieback, and fungal infection. Different strategies were deployed to support the tree — an antifungal treatment, ant killer, compost tea, watering the root zone, and adding mulch at the base of the tree.

The tree’s distress was exacerbated that year by hot dry weeks in June, July, and August.

Last year, the majority of its leaves dried and shriveled by midsummer. Collins decided to give the tree one more year but it failed to rebound.

Jeffrey Gollner, Milwaukee County Parks arborist and natural resources technician was in charge of the crew that removed the beech tree’s limbs.

“Fungus killed it,” he said. “We tried various fungicides, fertilizers, and plant growth regulators.”

A plant growth regulator is a hormone, Gollner said, sometimes used on large old trees. It slows growth, allowing the tree’s “energy to be directed toward maintenance,’ to its existing limbs, leaves, and roots.

He said there are numerous European Copper Beech trees growing along the lake in Milwaukee County, but also along the lake as far south as Racine and to Green Bay on the north. noting they don’t grow farther inland.

Mike Gagliano, Jeff Gollner, Ellen Stollenwerk, and Joe Wilson used their skills and expertise to remove the limbs of the Wisconsin State Champion European Copper Beech tree in South Shore Park. It is thought the tree is approximately 160 to 170 years old. The rings will be counted if the trunk is not hollow. PHOTO Katherine Keller

Gollner said there are many Wisconsin State Champion Trees in Milwaukee County Parks and on private land. He noted that one of those is an Ohio Buckeye that is growing on private property on the little section of Euclid Avenue, east of Kinnickinnic Avenue, in the little neighborhood behind Walgreens.

Not far from the dead beech is a Norway Maple that was marked for culling that Gollner estimated to be about 60 years old. Trees are culled when they begin to die. Dying or dead limbs fall and pose a hazard to park-goers.

He said parks are relatively harsh environments for trees. The Norway Maple’s native habitat is a forest where the soil is covered with decomposing leaves, bark, and other plant material with nutrients that are absorbed by the tree’s roots. By contrast, park trees are surrounded by turf that “sucks nutrition” for itself, disadvantaging the trees. Human traffic compacts the soil — trees require porous soil for good root growth.

Gollner said that the trunk of the European Copper Beech will remain in place for a time as local groups, Friends of South Shore Park among those, consider ways to memorialize the tree, perhaps with tree carvings, a bench made from the wood, and salvaged slabs.

If the trunk is intact, Collins said his staff would do its best to get an accurate count. If some of the trunk has rotted away, he said they’d get an approximate date, working with what remains.

“While it is very sad to see the tree that provided so many with shade and climbing fun for kids go, our tree actually lived longer than many of its kind,” said Milwaukee County District 4 Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic. “The Milwaukee County Parks, Friends of South Shore Park, and the Bay View Historical Society are all in talks about how to best memorialize the remaining stump.” South Shore Park falls is in Dimitrijevic’s district.

The South Shore Park European Copper Beech was included on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ list of State Champion Trees. Although it is currently on hold, the champion tree program is a database of the state’s largest trees. DNR’s website notes, “DNR keeps big tree records to encourage the appreciation of Wisconsin’s forest and trees.”

Andrew Gawin, a member of Friends of South Shore Park, said his group requests suggestions about how to memorialize the tree. Cutting boards for a bench is one idea. Another is to take a cross section.

Gerry Thieme, who worked for the parks department at the time, planted the second European Copper Beech tree that is growing about 50 feet east of the original old tree, said Gollner. Gregg Collins said it was planted 17-20 years ago.

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