Festival-goers honor legacy of Yarmouth elm

By Edward D. Murphy

Yarmouth, ME (July 18, 2010)- Kim Dailey can be forgiven for speaking about “Herbie” as if he were a person, and a living one at that. “Herbie’s been a unique character to work with,” Dailey said Saturday before setting up his booth at the Yarmouth Clam Festival. “He did not want to give up his water.”


Herbie wasn’t denying Dailey hydration on a hot day. Dailey was saying that it was difficult to get the moisture out of Herbie, the American elm that Yarmouth had to cut down last January after it finally succumbed to Dutch elm disease. Dailey is the primary woodworker asked by The Herbie Project to craft the the beloved 217-year-old tree into keepsakes that people can hang onto for years to come.

Herbie — along with his protector for decades, volunteer tree warden Frank Knight — are the honorees of this year’s festival. People were eagerly snapping up pieces of Herbie that have been turned into bookmarks, pens and bowls, mostly by Dailey, who also had a booth showing how he shapes blocks of Herbie’s wood into all those items. On Saturday, he made wooden bottle stoppers, along with a bowl or two. “Herbie and I have come up with a little understanding” these days, Dailey said, adding that he used a homemade kiln to evaporate some of the moisture out of the wood over the past few months.

Herbie was kept alive as it suffered through more than a dozen bouts of Dutch elm disease, a fungal infection that virtually cleared the country of American elm trees, which were prized for their wide limbs and capacity to provide cool shade on hot days. After Knight and others discovered last summer that the disease had spread throughout the tree, the decision was made to cut Herbie down. After the tree was toppled in January, state forestry officials counted rings and determined that Herbie had sprouted back in 1793, when the country was in its infancy.

Herbie and Knight were chosen as honorees for the common-sense reason that January isn’t a good time to celebrate much of anything outside, said Lisa Perkins, spokeswoman for the clam festival. “We couldn’t really get the town together to celebrate Herbie (in January), but we could at the clam festival,” Perkins said. At Memorial Green, a giant “cookie” of Herbie- a slice of the trunk- was on display, where children could count the rings and see if they came up with 217, just as the forestry experts had.

The Herbie Project also set up shop, selling items made by Dailey and others to raise money for a Yarmouth Tree Trust. In addition to the bowls and other items, the group was selling small bottles of Herbie’s “ashes”- sawdust- for $5 a pop, along with a certificate of authenticity attesting that it did, in fact, come from Herbie. The Trust will use money it raises to care for the town’s trees and, when needed, buy replacements.

Deb Hopkins, who heads up The Herbie Project, noted that a group of schoolchildren helped plant one of those replacement trees- an elm grown to be disease-resistant- earlier this year. Noting that it was called a Liberty elm, she figured the kids would come up with something patriotic to call the tree. Nothing doing, the kids said, so Herbie II is now taking root a short distance from where its namesake grew.

Dailey said he’s been doing his best to conserve what’s left of Herbie, cutting the large bowls in such a way that smaller blocks are retained to make more items. He said elm can be tricky to work with, since the trees take on a bit of a twist as they grow, and his cutting tools need to be kept very sharp to make sure that the twists don’t cause the wood to splinter as he works with it.

Doug Noble of Portland said he followed the story of Herbie after officials decided it needed to come down, and then on the day it was actually cut down in January. So when he saw some Herbie items on sale, he snatched up a small bowl. Besides liking the design, the bowl’s history is a draw, Noble said. “It’s the largest elm in Maine,” Noble said, “or it was.”

Related Resource:
Portland Press Herald- Festival-goers honor legacy of Yarmouth elm