Death of a Champion
NEW BOSTON, N.H. - Over three hundred years ago, the New England Colonies were forested with a wide variety of trees—oak, maple, beech, pine, chestnut, and many varieties of birch. On the hillsides above a minor river in the northern Massachusetts colony a stand of black or sweet birch enjoyed the acidic soil, plentiful rainfall, and wide range of seasonal temperatures.
For more than a century, the woods above the South Branch of the Piscataquog River protected a certain tree. The forest was then harvested, fields were cleared and planted; stone walls were built; second and third-growth trees reclaimed the woods; and the great storm of 1938 damaged the area. Still, the birch tree survived and grew 80 more years.
In the 1900’s the birch was noticed by loggers and few walkers familiar with the area. The loggers did not cut down the monster, deciding that it was not economically worth harvesting. Then, about 60 years ago, the large tree was brought to the attention of the UNH Cooperative Extension by Phil Harvell who lived on Hooper Hill. Landowner Heidi Palmer recalls that both her husband John and neighbor Phil made it a point to visit the tree often. “We valued the old birch as a friend, and wanted to do what we could to preserve it,” says Palmer.
In the late 1960’s a state forestry specialist recommended installation of cables to help support massive horizontal branches bigger than a foot in diameter. The Palmers had this done, thereby adding to the tree’s longevity.
From time to time starting since the tree was registered with the NH Big Tree Program, measurements of height, girth and crown spread have been entered into a complex big-tree rating system. The resulting number score of 266 was by far the highest in the state. In fact it was the highest in the United States. The National Champion status was announced in 1963, with a distant runner-up existing out west.
By the 1990’s the champion’s shaggy trunk was blemished with stubs of lost branches. More recently, porcupines took up residence in the hollowed-out trunk, leaving a four-foot pile of droppings.
In the third week of January this year, during a heavy winter storm and blizzard winds, the tree fell unheard in the forest.
Its exact age is difficult to determine because of the lack of a complete trunk with rings; it could be between 200 and 300 years old, more or less. A better guess will be made when the big branches are cut and counted. Heidi is pleased to note that there are many black birch saplings and healthy medium-size trees in the immediate area, offspring of the champion.
Although it will be greatly missed, there are plans to remove the bigger branches, mill the lumber, and dry it. Then In a couple of years, the lumber can be used for furniture and souvenir items. Anyone interested in working with the wood may contact Heidi Palmer at (603) 487-2991 in New Boston for more information.
The immense split trunk and artistic gnarled branches will be left at the site as a monument to a unique champion in New Boston history.
Written by Gail Parker