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Big, Beautiful, Historical Trees of Door County

The biggest American Elm in Door County east of Maplewood. Photo by Roy Lukes.

Now that most of the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves and are revealing their cold weather “bare bones” beauty, searching for and measuring potential new record-size trees in the county has taken on more significance. It was on the eleventh of this month, with magnificent fall weather to our advantage, that Nick and Gail Anderson joined Charlotte and me to measure some large trees at the Blossomburg Cemetery in Peninsula State Park.

The surprise of the morning was a gigantic sugar maple in outwardly good health and loaded with character, near the corner of one of the entrance roads, which turned out to be the co-champion for this species measured over the past several years by interested members of our Friends of Toft Point organization. The venerable veteran is 168 inches in circumference, measured at 4 1/2 feet above the ground, and has a height of 79 feet. I have estimated that the tree is approximately 294 years old and began growing in around 1716.

A frequently asked question by people interested in a tree they own or have come across during a hike is: “How old do you think the tree is?” Arborists and foresters have worked in measuring, averaging, doing increment borings of trunks of living trees, and counting the annual growth rings on the stumps remaining after trees were cut down, to come up with individual tree species’ factors enabling people to make age estimates themselves. Naturally the growing conditions vary considerably from tree to tree, even in the same woods, so the determined ages are strictly rough estimates at best. But at least you can get a ballpark idea of a tree’s age.

I will supply you with the factors for 21 different species of trees, not all native to North America, after I describe the rather simple calculations required in order to arrive at an estimated age. Basically the diameter of the tree in inches is multiplied by its species’ factor, but the easiest and most logical method is as follows. The circumference of the tree is measured in inches at 4 ½ feet above the ground. Next you divide this number by “pi” which is 3.14, in order to come up with the tree’s diameter. In the case of the Blossomburg Sugar Maple, I divided its circumference of 168 inches by 3.14, arriving at its diameter of 53.5 inches. The factor for Sugar Maple is 5 1/2, so now I multiplied the diameter of 53.5 inches by the Sugar Maple’s factor of 5 1/2 arriving at an estimated age of approximately 294 years.

Roy Lukes admiring the largest diameter cedar tree in Door County at Newport State Park. Photo by Charlotte Lukes.

Here are the factors for 21 tree species, the only ones I’ve been able to obtain. They are: Norway Maple – 4 1/2, Red Maple – 4 1/2, Silver Maple – 3, Sugar Maple – 5 1/2, Horsechestnut – 8, Paper Birch – 5, American Beech – 6, White Ash – 5, Green Ash – 4, Black Walnut – 4 1/2, Norway Spruce – 5, Blue Colorado Spruce – 4 1/2, Red Pine – 5 1/2, White Pine – 5, Scots Pine – 3 1/2, Black Cherry – 5, White Oak – 5, Northern Red Oak – 4, Basswood – 3, American Elm – 4, and Eastern Cottonwood – 2.

I studied our entire list of the 94 biggest trees measured in Door County to date and decided to calculate the approximate age of 10 of the largest specimens. Now it was a simple matter to list the approximate year they began growing. The exact locations and the owners of the trees are not included simply to protect the owner’s privacy.

Here are the 10 champions and the approximate year each began growing: 1716 – Sugar Maple in the Blossomburg Cemetery at Peninsula State Park; 1738 – White Ash along Bayshore Drive north of Sturgeon Bay; 1750 – Red Oak, City of Sturgeon Bay; 1775 – Black Walnut, City of Sturgeon Bay; 1781 – American Elm, along the Ahnapee Recreational Trail generally east of Forestville; 1791 – Red Maple, along the trail leading to Clark Lake at Whitefish Dunes State Park; 1800 – Basswood, next to the Castaways Supper Club south of Little Sturgeon; 1810 – White Pine, Bayshore Drive, north of Sturgeon Bay; 1840 – Eastern Cottonwood, in Institute along State Hwy. 57 next to the Institute Saloon; and 1846 – Silver Maple, on front lawn of the Sturgeon Bay High School. It boggles the mind realizing the events in history these ancient trees “witnessed!”

Charlotte Lukes and Nick Anderson measured the biggest Sugar Maple tree in Blossomburg Cemetery at Peninsula State Park this November.

I am very deeply indebted to my dad, his interest in trees and that he led me to also have great awareness and admiration of trees. Starting when I was around 15 years old, roughly 66 years ago, we measured many trees in various woods during our exploratory hikes. The closest we came to establishing a new state record was an American Beech that measured only two inches smaller than the state record tree’s circumference. It grew in his friend Henry Baumgartner’s woods, northwest of Kewaunee, where we also came upon the largest tree measurement of any we had ever done. Actually it was only the stump of a freshly cut Red Oak whose location Henry had described for us. Its annual growth rings totaled 166. We estimated it began growing in around 1776.

How I would have rejoiced had some of my grade school and high school history and science teachers led us to learn to identify trees, to estimate their ages and when they might have begun growing and, eventually, to relate these historically significant trees to cultural history through the years at the local, county, state and world levels. I feel that the great value in preserving unusually fine or historically admired tree specimens has been grossly underestimated and under-stressed.

My good friend in past years, Walter Scott, assistant to the head of the Wisconsin DNR and greatly respected tree expert wrote, “Next Arbor Day (which will be April 29, 2011) tie a red ribbon on your favorite trees in declaration of your sentiments.” He went on to say, “Having a friend or two (trees) in this age of chain saws and wood-burning stoves may make all the difference.”

My deep love for trees has grown considerably over the past 80 years, and I wholeheartedly agree with George Bernard Shaw who wrote, “Except during the nine months before he draws his first breath, no man manages his affairs as well as a tree does.”