Elms of Galesburg remembered
GALESBURG — Elms once were Galesburg’s trees of choice, their majestic branches not just providing shade but forming natural canopies over its streets. Thousands of the city’s elm trees died of Dutch elm disease in the 1950s and 1960s and many were replaced by ash trees. Those ash trees now are susceptible to the emerald ash borer, a shiny green Asian beetle that already has killed 20 million trees in North America.
It may be years before the emerald ash borer reaches Knox County, but its inevitable arrival may feel a bit like history is repeating itself.
The first case of Dutch elm disease in Galesburg was discovered in the mid-1950s on Monmouth Boulevard by Wayne Ashby, a former state forester.
After the diseased tree was discovered, samples were sent to the University of Illinois. Ashby got to work as soon as the results came back positive, training Boy Scouts to identify elm trees, estimate their age and height and create maps of every block in town.
One means of control in the mid 1950s was spraying elm trees with a DDT oil spray, but it was extremely costly and not an effective or practical way to prevent the spread of Dutch elm disease.
All most people could do was just wait for their trees to die.
The people of Galesburg loved their elm trees.
The city’s most famous elm tree the “Lombard Elm,” which also was known as “Big Ben” was on the former campus of Lombard College, which had become Lombard Junior High by the time Dutch elm disease got to town.
The tree was at one time registered by the National Society of Famous Trees. Some reports say the elm was the second largest elm in the country and was featured in a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” cartoon.
It had been planted as a sapling in 1868 by the Lombard College senior class to honor their classmates who had fought in the Civil War, and had grown to a stately tree, with its spread reaching up to 160 feet at one time, according to school records.
By 1961 Galesburg District 205 officials were spraying and pruning the tree to try to save it from Dutch elm disease and removing adjacent elms that already were dying from the fungus. The school district had about 250 elms on various grounds at the time, including 60 at Lombard alone.
Two years later, Big Ben was still healthy, despite the death of more than 50 trees on school property.
But by August of 1965, Lombard’s famous elm tree was dead. The following August, the tree was cut down, reduced to firewood and hauled away in wheelbarrows.
While the school district was trying to save Big Ben, the stately American elm trees at Knox College also were threatened. Lines of elm trees planted from Old Main and into Standish Park were known as “The Way to Knox,” a symbolic, natural pathway that was a beloved aspect of generations of students’ experiences on campus.
“For any Knox person around in the 50s, there was this overwhelming feeling you had heading towards Old Main from Standish Park,” said Owen Muelder, a 1963 graduate of Knox whose father was a faculty member. “It was not just a line of beautiful big trees. In the spring and summer, there was this feeling you were walking underneath a kind of tunnel. That’s how dramatic it was.”
As with Lombard, Knox’s elms had been planted in the early decades of the college, growing as the college did. But by 1963, the elms that created “The Way to Knox” were gone, as was Knox’s “Grand Old Tree,” which stood behind Seymour Hall.