by Jeremy Jones
When J. Sterling Morton and fellow pioneers settled in the Nebraska Territory in 1854, they missed the trees from back home, which for Sterling and his wife was Detroit, Mich.
Trees were also needed as windbreaks to keep soil in place, for fuel and building materials and for shade from the hot sun.
A journalist and editor, Morton eventually became secretary of the Nebraska Territory and, after meeting one day with the State Board of Agriculture, his proposal for a tree-planting holiday was approved.
On that first U.S. Arbor Day, April 10, 1872, it was estimated more than one million trees were planted.
In celebration of Arbor Day, April 24, 2015, and in recognition of our recently launched “Re-Tree the Avenue” program, I have the honor of introducing you to a star in our midst.
He remembers his first summer in Chestnut Hill. It was 1893. Germantown Avenue was a dirt road, crusty and dry from the summer sun. Water from the Schuylkill River was carried across Wissahickon Creek in a pipe bridge to the Mt. Airy Reservoir and pumped up the Hill where workers would sprinkle the road to lay down the dust.
In 1895, he marveled at the electrification of trolley cars and later enjoyed listening to the stonemasons’ yarns as they paved the Avenue with Belgian blocks.
When the Blizzard of 1899 hit, he survived, even though he was just 6 years-old. He made it through the Great Blizzard in 1947, the Storm of the Century in 1950 and Hurricane Hazel in 1954.
He may not be as majestic as our neighborhood’s namesake, the American chestnut, but his beauty is in his humility, and he deserves bragging rights for a remarkable reason: He is the oldest living Ailanthus tree (Ailanthus altissima) in the United States; most likely in the world, according to documentation, and he lives right here in Chestnut Hill.
More commonly known as “Tree of Heaven,” Ailanthus is endeared by generations as the inspiration for the strong, tenacious and resilient metaphorical centerpiece in Betty Smith’s 1943 classic “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”
Planted in 1893, our Ailanthus’ roots go back to China and East Asia. His ancestors came to the United States in 1784 to be planted at William Hamilton’s “Woodland’s” estate in Philadelphia, on the west bank of the Schuylkill River.
Our Ailanthus is a male – so in this story we’ll call him “Al.” He doesn’t expend energy producing resplendent flowers and seeding as the female Ailanthus does. His home is at 8419 Germantown Ave., where he grows alongside the Chestnut Hill Community Centre, and where visitors can sit on a bench for respite or conversation and feel his energy and presence.
Built as a private home in 1803, the building was purchased in 1920 by the Woodward family and deeded to the Chestnut Hill Community Center (the spelling of Center was changed to Centre in 1988).
Throughout the years, with his branches extended in friendship, Al witnessed the noble endeavors taking place at 8419 Germantown Ave. Most impressive were the women dedicating themselves to “the business of charity,” as author Kathleen Sanders chronicled in her book on the women’s exchange movement from 1832 -1900.
During “The Great War,” Al watched in admiration as members of the National League of Women’s Service repaired soldiers’ overcoats and worked for the welfare of the disadvantaged and refugees from the war.
Al felt privileged to feel a part of the organizations thriving beside him and those who selflessly worked on behalf of the greater good, most especially the tireless volunteers of the Chestnut Hill Women’s Exchange.
In addition to providing a meeting space for local organizations, the Community Centre currently houses Drakes Gourmet Foods and Catering, The Happy Butterfly and Bird In Hand Consignment Shop – a golden spoke in the wheel of life in Chestnut Hill.
If Al could talk, one can only imagine the list of laureates, editors, politicians and anchors of the community he would recall coming and going across the street at Town Hall, the hub of the village.
Today, at 122 years old, Al has lived beyond the expected age of 17-118 years. He is 164 inches in circumference and 69.1 feet tall.
When ISA Certified Arborist Ken LeRoy stopped by to say hello and saw the photo of Al at 25 years-old, he looked up and said, “Wow! It’s got the same branching pattern it had in 1918.”
LeRoy is with John B. Ward Tree Experts and has been working with trees in our neighborhood since 1990. He knows them all like the back of his hand and said Al is in “very good condition.”
Al serves as inspiration for Chestnut Hill’s “Re-Tree the Avenue” program. The fund has already planted 11 trees in strategic spots along the Avenue and 52 trees are waiting to be planted. To participate in the program or for more information, contact the Chestnut Hill Community Association at 215-248-8810.
“Each generation takes the earth as trustees,” said J. Sterling Morton.
Here’s looking at you, Al.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, David T. Moore and Barbara Healy for providing valuable notes and documentation on behalf of this story.