When Dutch elm disease first appeared in southwestern Connecticut, horrified New Englanders responded immediately to save their beloved elms, state agriculture experts wrote in 1935.
“Any disease that threatens the existence of the American elm strikes very deeply in the hearts of all New Englanders,” begins a 1935 pamphlet about the disease published by the Connecticut Agricultural Station.
New Englanders have cherished the elm ever since Connecticut and Massachusetts colonists began planting rows of them in the 1750s.
In the mid-19th century, village improvement societies planted thousands of the stately, fast growing trees. In the summer, their leafy branches formed a cathedral-like canopy over village greens and city streets.
But planting so many of one kind of tree created a monoculture that carried the seeds of its own destruction. The long rows of trees could not resist the pests and diseases that lurked in logs that came from overseas. So when Dutch elm disease arrived, it spread rapidly through those long lines of elms.
The Noble Elm
The map of New England is full of reminders of the elm’s glory days. Three cities – New Haven, Keene, N.H., and Waterville, Maine – call themselves Elm City. Worcester, Mass., has Elm Park. Elm Street in Manchester, N.H., functions as the city’s main thoroughfare. More towns in New England probably have an Elm Street than don’t.
And it wasn’t just the manmade elm forests New Englanders loved. Individual trees reached iconic status, most notably, Boston’s Liberty Tree, a white elm. Massachusetts also had the Knight elm in Newburyport, the Howard elm in Ware and the Washington elm in Cambridge.
In Providence, Elmo stood in front of Brown University’s Watson Institute until Dutch elm disease got it in 2003. Yarmouth, Maine, had a beloved champion elm called Herbie, which succumbed to the disease in 2010.
In 1758, an elm tree was planted in Wethersfield, Conn., which grew into the ‘most magnificent tree east of the Rockies.’
Writers waxed elegiac. New England’s elms, wrote Henry Ward Beecher, are ‘as much a part of her beauty as the columns of the Parthenon were the glory of its architecture.’’ Even the American Forestry Association found its poetic voice in a pamphlet: “On the rockbound coast of New England was founded a friendship between tree and man that has endured for more than three hundred years.
“…So deep became this companionship that when the settlers moved westward beyond the natural range of the elm, they took the tree with them to share their fortunes.”
Towns began naming Elm streets all the way to California.
The Enemy Within
At the height of their glory in 1937, America had 25 million elm trees. But their enemy — Dutch elm disease — had already begun burrowing beneath the bark. The trees just couldn’t resist them.
Dutch elm disease is caused by a fungus that attacks the tree’s circulatory system. Certain kinds of elm bark beetle spread it, mostly through the root systems.
Dutch Elm Disease
By the time America sank into the Great Depression, Dutch elm disease had struck in Cleveland. The silent killer had arrived in 1930 on a shipment of logs destined for an Ohio furniture factory. Within two years, Dutch elm disease was killing elm trees in New Jersey.
Connecticut, the gateway to New England, stood between the elm belt to the north and east and the territory where Dutch elm disease started to spread.
The first case of Dutch elm disease appeared in Connecticut in November 1933 in Glenville, where Westchester County in New York joins Fairfield County.
Fearing the tree’s extinction, the U.S. Department of Agriculture quickly set up an office to fight the enemy in Stamford. USDA scouts hired men from President Franklin Roosevelt’s new Civil Works Administration to survey elms in Fairfield County.
FDR to the Rescue
Roosevelt, an ardent dendrophile, eventually put thousands of young men to work planting and saving trees as part of his New Deal. Later the Civilian Conservation Corps took part in the fight against Dutch elm disease.
In the fall of 1934 Connecticut began its own survey. Six men traveled the main highways into every town in the state. They inspected 90,000 trees and designated 1,977 as possible victims of Dutch elm disease. Only one had it. However, many of the trees were in poor health and thus susceptible to infestation.
The New England states formed committees to rouse public sentiment on Dutch elm disease. They advised citizens to cut dead or dying parts of trees and burn them, while keeping their healthy trees in good condition by watering, fertilizing and spraying them.
The Hurricane of 1938
For the next few years, federal workers employed by New Deal agencies scouted diseased trees, cut them down and burned them. But Congress only funded the fight against Dutch elm disease in fits and starts, so the disease spread whenever funding dried up.
The disease found another ally when the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 wiped out millions of trees. The storm barreled through New Haven, Hartford, Springfield and Keene. The storm blew down millions of trees, and for years the elm bark beetles feasted and multiplied on the elm blowdowns.
In 1941, Massachusetts reported its first case of Dutch elm disease.
World War II
But then the United States entered World War II, and fighting the Axis powers took priority over fighting Dutch elm disease.
By 1952, the disease had spread throughout New England. Nearly all of New Haven’s elms had died. The Wethersfield elm succumbed in 1953 after reaching 30 feet in circumference and a height of 100 feet.
During the war, however, the U.S. military discovered a nifty new pesticide called DDT. It sprayed the stuff on South Pacific islands to kill malaria-breeding mosquitos. After the war, municipalities began to spray DDT on elm trees to try to save them.
But then in 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came out. In the book, she not only warned of the dangers of DDT, she showed it didn’t kill the elm bark beetle.
“Hundreds of towns were killing thousands or millions of birds while not protecting their elms,” wrote Charles F. Wurster, founder of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Silent Spring had a huge impact, especially on New England’s college campuses, according to Thomas Campanella in Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm. When the Williamstown, Mass., tree warden tried to spray the town’s elms, Amherst students rocked his spray truck or lay down in front of it.
In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT. By the end of the 1970s, Dutch elm disease had wiped out much of New England’s manmade elm forest. According to one estimate, the disease had killed 40 million elms since its arrival in Cleveland in 1930.
Some towns, like Castine and Blue Hill in Maine, were lucky. For some reason, their elm trees escaped the blight.
The Liberty Elm
The elm needed a new approach if it was to survive. In 1967, the Elm Research Institute formed to ‘rally support from the private sector’ for Dutch elm disease research in Keene. The ERI, one of several organizations dedicated to saving the elm, has developed varieties of the tree it calls Liberty elms, more resistant to Dutch elm disease. By 2000, it had planted 250,000 Liberty elms.
Several other varieties and hybrids that resist Dutch elm disease are being developed. The USDA has found people can sometimes save infected trees by pruning and burning infected areas and injecting the tree with a fungicide.
Dutch elm disease, however, is still a threat today.
Surviving New Haven elm: By Msact – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65161929; New Haven Green By Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14592924868/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/trolleytripsthro01hart/trolleytripsthro01hart#page/n19/mode/1up, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43213194. Herbie, By Dudesleeper – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3924123. Silent Spring By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48694009. This story was updated in 2023.