Another Elm City

W hile he was the president of Yale College in the early 1800s, the theologian, writer and horticulturist Timothy Dwight did a lot of traveling, wherever horse and cart might take him. One of his favorite destinations, as set down in his 4-volume travel journal, was Keene, New Hampshire. “Keene has been long esteemed the prettiest village, as it is unquestionably the largest, in the Western parts of New Hampshire,” he wrote, and this latter point has borne out; Keene remains the seat of Cheshire County and the population center of all four counties that make up the Granite State’s southwestern bulge. “At a subsequent visit,” he continues, “I thought it one of the pleasantest inland towns, which I had seen.” Dwight had set out from New Haven with a fixed idea of his hometown as “not a little enhanced, by the great multitude of shade-trees: a species of ornament, in which this town is unrivalled”—so he must have been impressed to find upon his arrival a rival. New Haven still calls itself the Elm City, and so does Keene.

Keene at the turn of the century had an unusually wide Main Street, widening to the point that it fully encircled the town commons at its northern terminus. It was nevertheless en-tunneled by the umbrella-like canopies of elms. By the time I arrived as a newly matriculated college student, Main Street was still a veritable Via dei Fori Imperiali, a bold, straight, half-mile-long line from the Keene State College campus to Central Square, but the elms were long gone. A great many had been uprooted by the hurricane of 1938, which happened to make landfall just west of New Haven. Then came the elm bark beetle, also arriving by sea, which spread Dutch Elm disease from elm to neighboring elm.

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The 1980s had seen purposeful replanting campaigns by both cities, using hybrid elms bred for their resistance to Dutch Elm disease. Keene had joined the Tree City USA program in 1979 and, in 10 years, had planted 150 elms and other urban-resistant species. I have an impression of downtown Keene at the end of the decade as a gray boulevard dotted with spindly saplings. There was a strong correlation between the bareness of all that exposed asphalt and the sense, among the shops, of having aged in place. Walking north from the college campus, you encountered first a couple blocks of tire shops and convenience stores, then a monumental office building with a post office in it, a Woolworth’s, some banks and formica-table restaurants, a couple plywood counter pizza joints and what might be called gift shops for not being anything else. I remember looking for something cool to decorate my dorm room and settling for a lollipop-green plastic plant. The little trees on the sidewalks didn’t make a countervailing impact, but that’s the nature of young trees. A city must plant and then wait, with the purposefulness that an identity crisis can inspire. A 1988 New York Times headline about the replanting drive in New Haven said it best: “New Haven Holding On To ‘Elm City’ Nickname.”

It should be said that nearly all cities in New England are, historically, elm cities. Elms had lined thoroughfares as reliably as hitching posts throughout the region, as thousands of old sepia-toned photographs—and hundreds of Elm Streets—will attest. In the 19th century, the elm was considered a practical way to beautify a city because it provided shade, but not too much shade, from a considerable clearance. For shopkeepers, it didn’t get physically in the way of commerce, and for cities, it required minimal pruning. Elms were also adaptable to heavily trafficked, compacted soil. The 1938 hurricane followed a convenient northward line from Elm City to Elm City, but uprooted street elms everywhere. And the bark beetle killed elms as far away as Sacramento after first being spotted on the National Mall.

But Keene and New Haven had experienced the loss as a uniquely existential one. That they remain part of a tiny rivalry of Elm Cities—including one known only as Elm City—has less to do with the elms they planted along their streets than with the elms they planted in their very centers. The first acknowledged New Haven elms were a gift to the Reverend James Pierpont and the church he ministered—now known as Center Church on the Green. That was in 1640. In 1784, civic leader James Hillhouse had elms systematically placed on the Green in what is considered the first public tree-planting program in the United States.

Likewise, when Keene talks about its elms, it refers pointedly to the seven elms planted in Central Square in 1851. They were in fact planted to create Central Square—i.e. “to fence in and ornament a small central portion of the Common of such size and shape as the Selectmen shall deem compatible.” An eighth elm—alternately named the Walker Elm, for the proprietor of the nearby hotel who planted it, and the Auction Elm, for the public auction that took place around it every week—had already been delineating the space for a decade. Keene remains richly cognizant of its own arboreal history, to the degree that the minutes of the meeting to consider the planting of the elms can be quoted. Said one Central Square shop owner, sounding like a modern-day shop owner, “What would happen to the business of local stores if the signs are covered up and blocked by the trees? I don’t want Keene to have a countrified look to it.” Industrialists at the meeting went on to express what sounded like concern that the trees would scare away industrialists.

That both New Haven and Keene were places of industry in the 1800s may ultimately be a reason to have adopted a “countrified” nickname. Keene, like New Haven, was geographically situated for making things. It had waterways—two branches of the Ashuelot River—to power mills and factories, and railroads to transport raw materials in and finished goods out. Factories sprang up to make pottery, glass, soap, textiles, shoes, saddles, mowing machines, carriages and many things made out of wood. In the minds of civic leaders like James Hillhouse and The Forest Tree Society of Keene, rampant industry and population growth at the outskirts must have made it that much more important for the green centers to hold.

When I returned to Keene years later, I didn’t recognize it. The saplings had grown to the extent that they were troubling my sense of the scale. Main Street had shrunk to the size of a promenade beneath them, and all the foliage was covering up the shop signs. In my Dwightian moment, I kept driving past the landmarks I was looking for. When I got out and walked, I found many of those landmarks were gone, replaced by upscale Asian restaurants, boutique hotels and, yes, gift shops, but with a funky, crafty, witchy vibe. You could get good coffee beans, string lights, wind chimes, tarot cards. The dorm rooms at Keene State must be a lot more interesting now.

The remaining landmarks had transformed into vintage landmarks, cleaned up, preserved and newly presented as part of Keene’s legacy. In the years after I left, Central Square had become the site of a multitude of annual gatherings, including a Pumpkin Festival, an International Festival and an Ice & Snow Festival. People flock to these things now, and I really think it’s the trees that did it.

Keene, New Hampshire
~125 miles north of New Haven

Written by David Zukowski. Image, featuring Keene, New Hampshire’s Auction Elm circa 1870, sourced from Wikipedia via the Keene Public Library and the Historical Society of Cheshire County.

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David Zukowski got his start writing for the Arts & Culture section of The Telegraph in southern New Hampshire while attending graduate courses in Albany, New York. He doesn't do that kind of driving anymore, but returns to New Hampshire often to climb mountains.

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