One of the many sad events of 2020 was the death of one of NH’s most renowned Big Trees, the ancient white ash at Pickity Place restaurant in Mason. The restaurant is in a 1786 cottage that is also the setting for Elizabeth Orton Jones’s rendition of Little Red Riding Hood, published by Golden Books in 1948.
Jones was also the illustrator and she prominently shows the ash tree by Grandmother’s front door where Little Red Riding Hood is headed with a treat. The picture is of the wolf knocking on the front door to trick Grandma into letting him inside so he can hop into her bed and await Little Red Riding Hood’s arrival.
Jones (June 25, 1910 – May 10, 2005) moved to Mason in 1945 after discovering the historic town on a business trip. She fell in love with the cottage and bought it. Soon it became the backdrop for the Red Riding Hood story as shown in the wonderful illustrations. A native in Illinois, Jones was an accomplished artist, having studied in Paris after earning a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. She accurately depicted the tree’s distinctive furrowed bark and its compound leaves. It was huge in 1948 when she drew it for the book, and even bigger when I first went to the restaurant upon moving to NH in the 1980s. I noticed the huge trunk, even though I was not yet a Tree Steward.
My curiosity about the diversity of the many NH tree species that were new to me (like white ash) led me to the UNH Tree Steward training, now the Natural Resources Stewards program. After completing the training, I eagerly became a volunteer with the NH Big Tree program and became a member of the Hillsborough tree measuring team and we had a backlog of trees ready for their 10-year re-measurement - the ash at Pickity Place was one.
Measurer Brenda Frye and I took on the task in 2014, not realizing that finding the restaurant would be the most daunting challenge! Located in a remote area of Mason, one appreciates what life was like for pioneer families in 1786 in the backwoods of NH.
The tree itself was very easy to find, situated right in front of the house surrounded by a large, flat, open lawn. This made it easy to measure. We measured the massive, twisted trunk at its narrowest point, the official way to measure low branching trees. (Otherwise, we measure the trunk at 4 ½ feet from the ground to get the circumference at breast height). It was 177’ around, not close to the biggest ash trees in NH. But it was big for Hillsborough County, and remained on our list until 12/6/20.
We returned to check a few years ago and saw it was showing its age and declining with thinning of the canopy. Little did we, or anyone else, know what was happening in the trunk!
I chatted with chef Keith Grimes, owner of Pickity Place since 2000, who said that when he left for home on Sat Dec. 5, 2020 with a huge, wet snowstorm progressing, he had a foreboding feeling about the tree. Here is Kim and Keith’s report in their newsletter of what happened:
"It is with a heavy heart that Kim and I made the difficult decision to take down our beautiful white ash tree that’s graced the front of our cottage for at least 200 years. The decision was made for the safety of our guests and employees. We took tremendous pride in the care we gave her from cables holding up limbs, yearly trimmings, root boost fertilizer, and lightning cables. But, sadly, it was time.
Last Saturday night, during heavy wet snow, the top right of the tree came crashing down and hit the glass roof of our sun room (the little room off of the dining room). We feel extremely lucky it did not crash our cottage! No one was hurt, but I’m sure our resident cats Poppy & Lily had quite a scare.”
To see the Golden book Red Riding Hood on YouTube, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzLflpueLpw
The NH Big Tree program was organized in the 1960s. The NH Big Tree program is organized under the umbrella of American Forests and follows their guidelines for measuring. NH presently has 10 national champions.