lord of the elms

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lord of the elms
This page is dedicated to the late, great Sauble Elm, a white (aka American) elm (Ulmus americana) which once grew beside the banks of the Sauble River, between the towns of Hepworth and Sauble Beach in the county of Bruce in the province of Ontario, Canada.

It is believed that sometime in 1966 or 1967, the tree contracted a fungus disease called Dutch Elm Disease (DED). The disease was first described by a Dutch biologist, hence its name, however the fungus itself is likely of Asian origin.

The fungus is Ophiostoma ulmi, and the suspected vectors are two species of elm bark beetle (see images at right), namely the European bark beetle (Scolytus multistriatus) and the native elm bark beetle (Hylurgopinus rufipes).

Spores of the DED fungus are carried on the bodies of these beetles and deposited, inadvertently, in egg galleries and tree wounds.

Once established, this fungus essentially blocks water-conducting tissues in the tree. Eventually, all crown foliage wilts and the tree dies.

To help prevent the spread of DED, this majestic "Lord of the Elms" was cut down on Monday, September 2, 1968, by then 49 year old Owen Sound native and timber expert Howard McNabb of Owen Sound, under the direction of the great conservation pioneer Malcolm Kirk, of the (then) North Grey Conservation Authority.
The North Grey Conservation Authority, created in 1957, and the Sauble Valley Conservation Authority, created in 1958, merged and became the Grey Sauble Conservation Authority on January 1, 1985).

It should be noted that Mr. McNabb and his crew of two (only!) men generously took this tree down at no charge to the conservation authority.
Mr. McNabb has been interviewed by the author and a transcript and/or .mp3 files of this interview will be posted here in due time.

Satellite map images pinpointing where the Sauble Elm lived

Spare The Axe
The story goes, when "The Queen's Bush" was logged-out in the late 1800's/early 1900's, this tree was so large at the time that loggers had to (thankfully!) leave it standing, as there was no existing technology to bring it out of the bush. In other words, the tree was too large for any sawmill carriage to handle!

When measured in 1960:

No increment boring was performed on this specimen when it was alive, as "the size of the tree was too great". Today's increment borers reach a maximum of 32 inches in depth - even these borers would have been inadequate for the task! The ring count in 1968 established that the tree began life in the year 1701.


In The Press

Sauble Signpost article, July 30, 1960

Sauble Signpost article

From an article in the Owen Sound Sun Times - Wednesday, September 4, 1968:

Bruce County lost one of the last important links with early days in this part of the province Monday morning as the giant Sauble Elm on the bank of the Sauble River was cut down. The proud giant was killed this year by a tiny organism that seeped into its life stream, called Dutch Elm Disease, which decimated the species in this part of the province. Chain saws, axes and wedges were used in the felling of the huge tree. Howard McNabb, a local timber operator from Owen Sound, and two assistants performed the operation which took about one hour. A tremendous roar could be heard for some distance as the elm crashed to the ground.

Many spectators saw the operation. The elm, thought to be about 350 years old, has attracted thousands of people over the years. It towered to the height of 140 feet to the crown and was 21 feet in circumference 6 feet above the ground. An accurate ring count will establish the exact age of the tree.

Owner of the property on which the tree stood is Alfred Ruth of Amabel Township who lives on a farm up the road from the entry gate. Access to the elm was first made possible by James Matches, now deceased, who built a road through his property and also the stile over the fence near the tree site.

The tree will be cut and distributed by the Sauble Valley Conservation Authority. Slabs will be taken for the Bruce County Museum, Grey County Museum, Shade Tree Laboratory at the University of Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum.

M.D. (Mac) Kirk, conservationist with the North Grey Region Conservation Authority, witnessed the falling of the tree and stated the elm was reasonably sound. "There is some butt rot at the base", he added.

Several visitors came to the site during the afternoon and gazed in amazement at the monstrous tree as it lay prostrate on the ground.

M. D. Kirk

A relic of old Ontario recently passed into history, when the Sauble Valley Conservation Authority felled the ancient Sauble Elm, a victim of Dutch Elm Disease. The 300-year-old giant was 21 feet in circumference, six feet from the ground. The buttresses extended out like the groynes of a cathedral, greatly increasing its girth at ground level.

The Sauble Elm took root on the banks of the Sauble River near Lake Huron about the year 1670, when Ontario was a vast wilderness, penetrated only by a few Jesuit missionaries and coureur de bois from New France. During its first 200 years of life in the rich alluvial soil, the forest about it remained undisturbed. A century ago, lumbermen and settlers invaded the Sauble Valley, cutting, burning and clearing most of the original forest. They by-passed the Sauble Elm, for by that time it had grown too large to handle with team and cross-cut saw. The old monarch was left behind, registered in the minds of local farmers as "the big elm". On the tree's 260th birthday, Dutch Elm Disease invaded North America, sealing the Sauble Elm's eventual doom.

Ten years ago the late Dr. Sherwood Fox, distinguished naturalist and man of letters, noting its unusual size and grandeur, warned the newly fledged Conservation Authority of incipient decay in the tree's upper branches. The Authority obtained permission from Alfred Ruth, the owner, to repair the tree. James Matches, Authority member, whose pasture farm commanded access to the tree, built a road and stile to the3 Ruth farm. Classrooms of school children, tourists and Sunday afternoon strollers visited the big tree in increasing numbers. The luckier ones saw otters in the river, or flushed up mergansers. Botanists noted colonies of nodding trilliums near the giant roots.

Meanwhile, Dr. Fox, a man of action, raised funds from his many friends, and from his own pocket, which enabled the Sauble Authority to repair the tree. Lofty surgery it was indeed, for the surgeon toiled 60 feet above the ground to cover the decay.

Tree surgery granted the Sauble Elm only brief respite, for in 1965 a massive invasion of Dutch Elm Disease swept up from the south, destroying the green blanket of white elms that characterized the rural countryside of the Sauble Valley. By 1967 the old elm was dead, its great stark branches etched against the sky as a symbol of our decaying environment.

In September 1968 the Authority engaged Howard McNabb, a timber operator, to cut down the elm. Within an hour the tree fell with a great roar, to the delight of watching children who clambered over its enormous carcass.

The Conservation Authority will dry the logs slowly to prevent checking, and provide slabs for museums and laboratories so that this patriarch will not be forgotten.

Mr. Kirk is Resources Manager for the North Grey and Sauble Valley Conservation Authorities.

Image Gallery
early sixties roadside photo
Photo of a Grey County roadside, early 1960's. The striking profile of the white elm was everywhere. 
 Photo courtesy Malcolm Kirk.

roadside image 1980s
Photo of the very same Grey County roadside, 1980's
(where have all the white elms gone, long time passing...)
Photo courtesy Malcolm Kirk.

The master woodsman who cut the Sauble Elm down, Howard McNabb, with son.  Photo courtesy Ivy McNabb.
A master woodsman, Mr. McNabb was the only person in the Grey Bruce region who was skilled enough to take the tree down.

Ivy McNabb and son at tree base.
Photo courtesy Howard McNabb.

Ivy McNabb and son at base of Sauble Elm.
Photo courtesy Howard McNabb.

Bert Samells/H.W. Patterson
The Sauble Elm, circa 1958. The author's father on left; his friend, Lands & Forests Zone Foreman Bert Samells, on right.  Photo courtesy Louise Patterson.

family beside elm
The author (2nd from right) with his father and siblings, circa 1959. A great picnic spot indeed!  Photo courtesy Louise Patterson.

View from other side of Sauble River, circa 1958.  Photo courtesy Louise Patterson.

sauble elm
Another photo from other side of Sauble River, early 1960s  Photo courtesy Malcolm Kirk.

Author's brother, age 2, circa 1959.  Photo courtesy Louise Patterson.

Sauble elm coffee table
The author's 6 inch (15cm) thick crosscut slab of the tree, now a coffee table, taken from approximately 40 feet (12m) from base. Three carbide router bits were ruined when "planing" this slab to uniform thickness. Tiny sparks were visible occasionally during this operation. A very, very hard specimen to deal with. The bark (removed) was almost two inches thick at some points.

Many thanks to Malcolm (Mac) Kirk and Howard McNabb for providing factual information, images and anecdotes.