The Journal Gazette
Thursday, August 26, 2021 1:00 am

Elm disease consumed decades

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

For decades, the city's forestry workers battled Dutch elm disease with projects to spraying healthy trees and removing dead or diseased trees.

The disease – a fungus spread by beetles – had arrived in the U.S. from Europe in the 1930s and cases were noted in Fort Wayne as early as 1949. By the mid-1950s, hundreds of trees were being removed from the city's parks and streets each year.

An insecticide spraying program that treated about 11,000 trees in 1955 was credited with keeping numbers from skyrocketing the following year, but still the disease ravaged hundreds of trees a year.

In 1959 alone, 1,328 elms were removed, including 1,081 along streets, according to a 1960 Journal Gazette story. In 1959, staff was added and new mechanical equipment was bought to help in the fight, such as a mobile aerial tower for the removal of tree limbs.

The first three years of the battle cost the city about $120,000, according to the 1960 JG story. But officials warned that it would cost more to simply give up and remove and replace all the city's elms, at a cost of around $1.56 million.

A 1982 JG story noted that 30 years after the disease began to tear through the city's tree population, there were still stretches of parks and streets without any trees, and the city was planning to plant 1,500 trees. But that would barely put a dent in a waiting list that had names of thousands of homeowners waiting for trees.

Derek Veit, superintendent of forestry for Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation, checked the city's inventory of street trees this month and says there are about 76 elms with a diameter of at least 20 inches. Veit expects those older trees to succumb to Dutch elm disease at some point, but there are also dozens of younger elms in the city, some of which are varieties that are supposedly resistant to the disease.

Before Dutch elm disease, Veit says the concern was chestnut blight. And after Dutch elm came the emerald ash borer.

Though thousands of elms used to arch above city streets, Viet says struggles like the fight against Dutch elm disease have taught a valuable lesson.

“Hopefully we've learned to diversify more,” he says. “We used to fill streets or even neighborhoods with one species of trees because it looked nice ... but that also means if an insect or disease problem comes along, they also all die at the same time.”

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“Spraying Helps Cut Toll Of City's Elms” (Aug. 11, 1956)

Last fall after the city had felled 334 diseased trees, forestry officials were fearful that Fort Wayne's 14,000 elms were doomed to die from Dutch elm disease.

Yesterday, the picture was a bit more encouraging.

The City Forestry Department reported it has had to remove 198 stately elms so far this season, far fewer than figured had not the disease been slowed in its deadly swath through the parks and down the city's streets.

But, there is not too much optimism yet.

“We've been cutting every day this season,” a forestry official said, “but our spraying program started last summer has resulted this year in some reduction in the spread of the disease.”

The disease is caused from a fungus carried on the bodies of beetles. It has wiped out the elms in many large cities in the East. Only one case was noted here in 1949; two in 1950; four each in 1951 and 1952; and three in 1953.

In 1954 the department discovered 23 dead elms and in 1955, some 334 were removed! Yesterday it was reported than 198 trees have had to be removed thus far this season.

And this figure does not include diseased trees on private property. These are the responsibility of home owners.

Last year, a forestry spokesman said, about 11,000 city trees between curbs and sidewalks were sprayed. Figures show definite evidence of reduction this year in the spread of the disease.

In many other cities this year the disease has multiplied ten-fold. It was pointed out, therefore, that if spraying carried on last year was not effective there likely would have been 3,000 cases here this year.

The Forestry Department's fight against the disease is waged through sanitation, or cutting down and burning of diseased trees, and the spraying of healthy trees, and the spraying of healthy trees to prevent spread of the disease.

One official reported that time spent in combating Dutch elm disease has made it impossible to keep up with tree trimming. “We're way behind in our schedule of trimming and we ask the public to be patient on this matter,” he commented.

“One entomologist last year was skeptical about whether Fort Wayne's elms could be saved. He feared that all elms here would be lost unless someone could come up with a quick cure.

But there still is no known cure for the disease. Spraying of DDT has been reported as the most successful method used so far in many cities.

Main symptom of the disease is the yellowing of leaves which later fall off.

Then it is too late.

“Elm Disease Still Plagues Trees In City,” by Mel Dixon (July 17, 1959)

Dutch Elm disease, the dreaded tree killer, continues to plague the stately elm population of Fort Wayne.

Howard L. Von Gunten, Superintendent of Parks, reported yesterday that 271 diseased or dead trees have been removed so far this year by the City Forestry Department from between the curb and sidewalks along city streets. Also, 231 elms have been cut in city parks for a total of 502.

Although the Forestry Department is exerting its fullest efforts in combating the Dutch Elm disease, Von Gunten said, several hundred more trees will fall to the disease during the next few months.

An encouraging point brought out by Von Gunten was that although the fatal effect of Dutch Elm disease appeared earlier this year than last season, it is anticipated that the total elm loss will not exceed that of last year. Some of the city's giant elms have fallen this summer, particularly along Hanna Street and on Rudisill and Anthony Boulevards where such trees have been landmarks for generations.

“Diseased or dead elm trees on private property.” Von Gunten stated, “are sources of contamination and endanger the healthy trees within the city.

“In order to save the elms of Fort Wayne, it is of the utmost Importance that property owners promptly have diseased or dead trees removed and destroyed.”

The City Forestry Department's sanitation and removal program has been accelerated by the use of mechanized equipment and the hiring of additional workers.

The purchase last January of a mobile aerial tower to perform routine and specialized removal of tree limbs has greatly increased efforts of the department in battling the disease.

The tower, mounted on a two-ton truck, can be extended in the air to a distance of 55 feet. Without effort, a forester is safely lifted, along with the necessary tools, into the tree top to remove diseased limbs.

Used along with the tower is a trailer-mounted mist blower for spraying.

The Forestry Department carries out a two-phase program in combating the Dutch Elm disease:

Spraying with a DDT solution in winter and early spring when trees are dormant to prevent infestation by the beetle which spreads the disease.

Immediate removal and burning of dead or dying trees in which the beetle breeds.

Von Gunten stressed: “The program should also be carried on by the private citizen as well as by the city. Even though we of the Park Department are doing exactly what the experts recommend, our program is nullified unless we have the co-operation of private property owners.”

“Removing Dead Trees Helps Fight Elm Disease,” by Jerry Huddleston (July 25, 1960)

In hundreds of university laboratories botanists are seeking cures for the beetle-borne fungus which threatens extinction of the graceful elms which arch our streets.

Meanwhile in Fort Wayne and communities like it a relentless rear guard action is being waged against the disease in a desperate attempt to save as many trees as possible as long as possible in the hope that the cure will be found.

Part of the battle includes spraying elms in the fall (when the leaves are gone) with insecticides which can kill the beetle before it bores through bark carrying the fungus which shuts off a tree's circulation.

The other half of the battle is in full swing this time of year. Perfected to assembly line efficiency with modern equipment, it entails removing dead trees and destroying them by fire to curtail spread of the disease.

Thirty-three men working in crews of three to four have removed 515 street trees and 253 park trees so far this year. Only 481 stumps have been removed; stump removal lags behind because fewer men are assigned to it and because the stumpers' chain driven teeth frequently hit rocks and metal, halting the work while the teeth are sharpened.

Last year 1,328 elms were removed, including 1,081 along streets.

As of today removal is the only answer for diseased trees, according to Parks Supt. Howard Von Gunten and Assistant City Forester Dick Ellenwood who is in personal charge of the removal program. They acknowledged the existence of advertised claims for saving trees from Dutch elm disease, but said that so far none of these has been authenticated.

(One advertised claim involves introducing sulphur into the sap to make the tree distasteful to the beetle.”)

Using power saws, brush shredder and stump removers, A crew can whisk away a diseased tree in as little as 45 minutes if it is of average size (16 to 18 Inches in diameter). Big ones with trunks up to three feet thick may take a day and a hall.

In removal, the two-man chainsaw first is used to make a trunk notch in the direction the tree is to fall to avoid damage to buildings and utility lines. Tension on a guide rope also controls the fall.

Then, while the bole and large limbs are cut into burning lengths, the brush is trimmed off and run through shredder into a waiting truck. This reduces what would be about three loads of brush into one load of chips.

The chips, since they do not attract the bark beetle, are used for mulching park shrubbery.

Where the arrangement of power lines and other obstacles make it necessary, a tree scheduled for removal is first topped by a crewman standing on the small platform at the end of an arm of one of the Park Department's “Hi Rangers.”

Because these machines move faster than the crews which follow them, the topping operation may take place several days before the removal of the rest of the tree, a fact which has drawn the department some criticism. But, Von Gunten explained, it would be an inefficient use of the Hi Rangers to keep them standing at removal sites.

Currently crews are concentrating on street trees. Later in the year park employees now busy on lawns and flower beds will concentrate on removing diseased elms from parks.

While the first three years of the Dutch elm disease fight has cost taxpayers around $120,000, simply abandoning the fight might cost even more.

As former City Councilman Willard Redmond explained when he was chairman of the Mayor's Free Preservation Committee, giving up “would mean that 90 percent of the city's elms would die within two to five years. The estimated cost for removing and replacing them would be $1,560,000.”

And the real loss, he said, would be “inestimable. At the end of five years almost all of our beautifully wooded streets would have disappeared ... In their place would stand streets lined with trees of buggy whip proportions needing another 20 years before becoming useful shade trees.”

“City to plant 1,500 trees, faces backlog of requests,” by Myra Mae McFarland (July 8, 1982)

Thirty years ago, Dutch elm disease ravaged the city's trees. The disease swiftly denuded block after block of Fort Wayne streets.

Today, there are stretches still without trees, but the causes usually are less dramatic slow working diseases, fast-moving motorists and pollution from automobile.

Those naked spots in the park strips, the narrow stretch of city owned land between the sidewalk and the street, have irritated some homeowners who have pleaded unsuccessfully with the city to have the trees replaced.

One couple in the 3500 block of South Harrison Street said they telephoned the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department repeatedly for two years about replacing a tree that was lost to a reckless motorist, but could not get a satisfactory response. Last weekend, the couple. who asked that their names not be published, bought two trees - trees that legally will belong to the city and planted them themselves

The parts department has a backlog of requests for trees with thousands of names on the list, said Director Robert C. Arnold. This fall, some of those homeowners finally will get trees, he said.

The department's $6.95 million bond issue includes an allotment to purchase and plant 1.500 trees. Arnold said. These will be added to the more than 100,000 trees along the city's park strips

But those 1,500 trees will not satisfy all the requests, and residents who call now will be placed on a new waiting list, Arnold said.

The treeless park strips can be traced to several years of budget and staff cuts, Arnold said.

Obtaining the trees is one problem, he said. Taking care of them is another.

“We're just monitoring and maintaining the trimming program for dangerous trees. We're just not able to get into a full-blown trimming program every five years like we'd like to,” Arnold said. Consequently, the parks department is asking homeowners to help

“We encourage people to plant their own trees, but we encourage them to call the forestry office and get some help with spacing watering and care,” Arnold said.

The forestry office in Lawton Park has instructions on what types of trees are best to plant, Arnold said.

Meanwhile, the parks department is laboring to clean up the mess from the Memorial Day mini tornado that damaged an estimated 2,000 trees. Not all the trees were destroyed in the storm, but replacement of those that were lost will require yet another waiting list and more years of naked park strips, Arnold said.


Can you help?

A reader recently contacted me looking for photos or more information about Snyder Speedometer Shop, which operated on East Washington Boulevard. The reader – a collector of local memorabilia – is the current owner of a sign that appeared on the shop from 1934 to 1986. The sign has a police officer whose arm moves up and down.

If anyone has information about the shop or the sign and is willing to speak with the current owner, call Corey McMaken at 461-8475 or email, and we will put you in touch.

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