Living landmarks of the York County coast

Pre-historic tree stumps at Kennebunk Beach
Pre-historic tree stumps at Kennebunk Beach

Mainers paid homage to the role trees had played in the history of their state by selecting the pine cone and tassel as Maine’s official floral emblem in 1895. For hundreds of years trees had provided timber for their homes, masts for their ships, fuel for their fires and food for their tables. Scientists, historians and journalists have recognized the significance of a few particular living landmarks on York County’s coast.

Stumps of ancient white pine trees rooted in peat were uncovered on Wells Beach by wave erosion in 1955. Radiocarbon dating performed in 1959 by geologist Arthur M. Hussey indicates that, 3,000 years ago, these trees were growing in a wooded upland, but were gradually drowned by the rising sea level. As the topography changed, the dunes moved up and over the ancient roots. Similar stumps have also been found in the intertidal area along Kennebunk Beach.

Charles Bradbury, in his 1837 “History of Kennebunkport,” wrote about a mysterious reference in 17th century town records to a marker at the “cursed fruit.” Historian Ruth Landon later identified the reference as an apple tree near Tyler Brook, the bitter fruit of which had inspired the name.

Cape Arundel cedar tree
Cape Arundel cedar tree

In her 1901 book, “Ropes Ends,” Kennebunkport librarian and author, Annie Peabody Brooks, published a photograph of a little bonsai-like cedar tree growing out of the rocks at Cape Arundel. Her caption read, “Old as Capt. Gosnold.” Starting in the 1890s, the same photo was periodically printed in tourist publications and the scraggly cedar became an icon of Cape Arundel’s picturesque rocky shoreline. The tenacious little conifer was still clinging to the rocks in 1950 when artist Frank Handlen captured its likeness in a pastel now owned by the Kennebunkport Historical Society.

A notable landmark at Beachwood (aka Goose Rocks Beach) was described by a Boston Daily Globe correspondent 1911. “In a broad expanse of eye-pleasing landscape in the village of Beachwood, a part of the town of Kennebunkport, Me, stands a group of old birches, long known to the native dwellers and summer sojourners as the ‘Twelve Apostles.’ From good viewpoints they can be seen from miles around and old time residents of the village say that originally there were 12 trees, healthy, white of bark and glorious in green foliage when the months of bloom rolled their courses.”

The majestic anatomy of elm trees often qualified them for landmark status. On May 17, 1826, a giant elm located 1½ miles from the Wells shore was uprooted in a late spring gale. The New Hampshire Statesman and Concord Register reported the loss. “The Great Elm, in Wells Me, which has long been a landmark for vessels entering that harbor, was blown down in the gale on the 17th ult. It was estimated to be 100 feet in height and rose 60 feet clear of limbs. Its circumference was 27 feet, 4 inches.”

Kennebunk has had its own iconic elms. Vintage postcards of the tree growing through the roof of the first Storer Mansion barn are still among the most prized eBay finds. The barn was built in 1855 by owner Captain Lord. Wishing to save the stately elm that stood in the way of his barn expansion, Lord left a hole in the middle of the new structure allowing the tree to grow unimpeded. Lattice and lead flashing wrapped around the opening had to be adjusted periodically as the trunk expanded. Kennebunk Town Historian, Kathy Ostrander, writes in her 2005 book, “Kennebunk,” that the barn was torn down in 1929.

Kennebunk's Lafayette Elm
Lafayette Elm

In the field next to the Storer Mansion stood the Lafayette Elm named for the French General who served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War and who furthered French commitment to American interests. The wildly popular Marquis de Lafayette visited towns all over New England in 1825. At Kennebunk, an elaborate celebration was planned to honor his service to America. All the well-heeled ladies in town were invited to the Storer Mansion to meet the French dignitary, whose admiration of women was notorious. They reportedly dined in the shade of an already formidable elm tree. The Lafayette Elm succumbed to Dutch elm disease in 1971, but a slice of its trunk was saved by the Brick Store Museum. Naming an elm tree in honor of Lafayette’s excursion was apparently not an idea that originated in Kennebunk. The “Lafayette Elms” scattered all over Massachusetts and New Hampshire might lead a student of history to conclude that General Lafayette toured the elm trees of New England in 1825.

Many of the beautiful trees we wiz by in our cars every day were admired by horseback-riding residents of the Province of Maine and should be treasured as a link to our ancestors.

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