During the mid 1920s, renowned plant explorer, author, and educator Ernest Henry Wilson began to photograph what he considered to be noteworthy trees in the Boston area, central Massachusetts, the Mohawk Trail, southern New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island. Equipped with his Sanderson camera, he captured nearly one hundred photographs of elms, more than fifty of various oak species, and numerous genera of conifers. These digital images have been reproduced from the original glass plate negatives, which though fragile, retain a stunning amount of detail and contrast after nearly a century. Available for the first time, the photographs provide literal snapshots of early twentieth century New England landscapes and architecture.
You may click the tabs below for a detailed background and view of each image.
Please keep checking this page and our Library Leaves blog as we continue to build this online collection.
Special thanks to Donna Tremonte, William Buchanan, Miranda Mollendorf, and The Digital Commonwealth for making this project possible.
Side of main road between Groton and Townsend. Tree 90 ft. tall, girth of trunk 15 ft.
This photograph (M-1), dating to October 12, 1923, was taken contemporaneously with the fall of the George Washington Elm in October 26, 1923. There is also a close-up detail of the tree trunk and branches in photo M-2.
The George Washington Elm was also a species of American or white elm (Ulmus americana) with a sentimental, patriotic history. Although the tree in the photograph clearly is not the George Washington Elm on Garden Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there were deliberate attempts to connect other American elms to the George Washington Elm. It was fancifully perceived as the original patriarch of all the other American elms.
There were many telephone calls and letters at the Arnold Arboretum about this species in the 1920s and 1930s. The inquiries focused on “the genuineness of the plants offered as the progeny of the tree popularly associated with George Washington,” who supposedly assumed command of the American Army under the shade of the tree in 1775. This photograph depicts one of the magnificent old elm trees that lined the main road in Groton, Massachusetts. Some of the oldest elms in Groton began to grow in 1740 on the main street and also on private property, and seemed to be a source of civic pride.
The American elm became a Massachusetts state symbol in 1941.
Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University. “The Cambridge Washington Elm.” Bulletin of Popular Information, Series 3, Vol. V., no 18. Dec. 10, 1931.
Green, Samuel Abbott. The Natural History and Topography of Groton. Groton, 1912.
Simmons, James Raymond. The Historic Trees of Massachusetts. [Boston: Marshall Jones Co., 1919].
On the Mohawk Trail.
Acer saccharum (sugar maple) [M-3] grows predominantly in the northeastern region of North America. It is known for its exceptionally bright orange and red foliage, and for maple syrup. It can grow up to 150 feet in height, but generally grows to be less than 20 feet tall. The photo of this tree dates to October 13, 1923, and it was taken in the Mohawk Trail State Forest in Charlemont, MA. The Mohawk Trail State Forest is well-known for its tall trees and the old age of its trees. Some are 500 years old, and trees between 100-200 years of age are very common. There are 18 tall tree champions is on the Mohawk trail. Notably, there is a National Champion sugar maple listed in the National Register of Big Trees as of 2007. The one in the photograph [M-3] is extremely tall, when compared to the scale of the other trees, car, and person posed next to it, but it is uncertain if the large sugar maple depicted here is the champion tree photographed in earlier years.
This deciduous conifer, known as tamarack or American larch (Larix laricina), is native in the Northern United States, Canada, and the Arctic Circle. M-4 features the bark in a detailed, close-up view of the tree’s trunk, while M-6 depicts a full view of the tree and its surroundings. The bark of this tree has a gnarled, cracked appearance, signifying its age. The smooth bark of its younger years gradually becomes scaly over time.
USDA Forest Service, “Larix laricina.”
Near Milford. Tree 95 ft. tall, girth of trunk 16 ft.
M-5 is another Ulmus americana, near Milford in New Hampshire. It was 95 feet tall, and the girth of the trunk was 6 feet. Wilson distinguished between various types of Ulmus americana in his book Aristocrats of the Trees. He felt that “no other American tree exhibits so much variety as the American elm,” and divided this tree into “three distinct types,” with many variations in between. While M-1 seems to be comparable to the first type he discussed, with “a round-topped, shapely mass,” M-5 is probably closer to the slender third type, which he likened to an “old-fashioned wine glass” with sparser branches.
Wilson, E.H. Aristocrats of the Trees. [Boston: Stratford, 1930].
Wareham, Cape Cod.
M-7 is a Pinus rigida from Wareham, Massachusetts (Cape Cod), situated near a house. Cape Cod and Long Island, where these trees still flourish, were once pitch pine forests. This photograph was taken on October 28, 1923. The tree’s leaves (needles) grow in threes, the cones are sharp and rigid, and the bark is rough and sometimes quite black, which is why it is sometimes called “black pine.” Pinus rigida is also called a “pitch pine” because it was an important source of pitch, tar, rosin, and turpentine in Colonial periods. It is known for being rugged, asymmetrical, and irregular in shape, and for being a phoenix-like tree that can withstand human abuses and the harsh elements of wind, salt water, and even fire. It can even resurrect itself after being chopped down. Wilson and George Emerson both felt that it was an unattractive tree because it was asymmetrical, and Wilson even called it an “unlovely tree” with “little garden value.” Virginia Barlow says that its “survival mechanisms take a toll on appearance,” and that many of these trees have “irregular profiles,” which “include heavy, lopsided lower branches, and many years’ worth of aged cones blacken the crown.” Emerson and Wilson both noted that the tree could withstand the elements of wind and rain when “lashed by the sea,” and Emerson said that for this reason it thrives on Cape Cod. In her study about the nature of Cape Cod, Beth Schwarzman mentions that pitch pines are flammable, though especially well-adapted to surviving and regrowing after fire, and that their serotinous cones only open when heated by fire. Wilson mentions “green sprouts that grow on its trunk,” by which he means that the stump of this tree sprouts when it is cut down. The sprouts do not grow to be very tall, but they flourish. This trait is evidently unique, as this is the only pine exhibiting this resurrective property.
Barlow, Virginia. “Pitch Pine,” Northern Woodlands, March 1, 2010.
Emerson, George. Report on the trees and shrubs growing naturally in the forests of Massachusetts. [Boston: Little Brown & Co, 1887].
Schwarzman, Beth. The Nature of Cape Cod. [Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2002].
Girth of trunk 17 feet.
M-8 is a detail of Ulmus americana, with a focus on the tree trunk.
The Cushing Elm [M-9] was situated near Cape Cod, in a portion of Hingham lying just south of Nantasket Junction near the Cohasset town line. It grew on East Street, on what was called the “Rocky Nook.” Aesthetically, the Cushing Elm was considered by many to be a very large and symmetrical tree.
Wilson’s characteristic style of creating a photographic composition with a centrally-placed tree and a human figure standing next to it to show scale accentuates its celebrated symmetry and size. Similar to the Washington Elm, the Cushing Elm has an extremely colorful and patriotic history. The Daughters of the American Revolution put the following inscription on the tree:
“Under this tree in 1775
Pastor John Brown preached to a company of Cohasset soldiers
of Col. Greaton’s Regiment which
Served in the siege of Boston.”
Captain Stephen Cushing, who planted the tree in 1729 and whose name is commemorated by the tree, was a farmer, proprietor of a large landed estate, and selectman by trade. He lived across the street from the tree, having inherited an old colonial house from his father Peter Cushing, who died at age 28 in 1715.
Initially the tree was planted on the Cushing’s property, but it was eventually transplanted across the street. On July 25, 1839, the tree measured 13 feet in circumference, and the branch span at its fullest was over 90 feet. There were 8 large main branches, and it was 60-70 feet tall, according to George B. Emerson, who measured the tree in the company of botanist William Oakes, who probably served as an eyewitness. In 1919, when Simmons’ book was published, the dimensions increased considerably. He said that only one of the 8 main branches had died, the spread was over 100 feet, and the circumference was 16.5 feet. In the photographic detail of the Cushing Elm [M-10], one of the main branches is clearly severed at the left.
The Phellodendron japonicum [M-13, M-14], [M-15] is a cork tree with “roughly furrowed bark, green flowers tinged with pink, and dark, bluish-black berries” on the female version. There are both male and female variants of this tree, which is “dioecious,” that is, having male and female flowers on separate trees. Male staminate flowers are on one plant and female pistillate flowers are on another plant. The Japanese cork is comparatively small and belongs to the Rutaceae family, which is the same family as oranges and other citrus fruits. As mentioned, these trees were raised in 1870 at the Botanic Garden at Harvard. They came from a seed at the Imperial Garden in St. Petersburg. The seed was probably collected by C.J. Maximowicz in Japan. Maximowicz was the chief botanist at the Imperial Garden in the 19th century, and he traveled to Japan to collect a large number of Japanese plants between the years 1860-1864.
This tree was brought from Cambridge Botanic Garden and planted about 1871 by Professor C.S. Sargent.
Bussey Grounds. Plant raised in Cambridge Botanic Garden from seed collected by Maximowicz and sent to Asa Gray from Petrograd. This tree was brought from Cambridge Botanic Garden and planted about 1871 by Professor C.S. Sargent in the Bussey Grounds.
E.H. Wilson introduced Juglans mandshurica (Manchurian Walnut Tree) [M-16] to England in 1903. It is a medium sized tree with decorative value. It has edible walnuts that are too small for commercial harvesting. Wilson notes in his 1930 book Aristocrats of the Trees that he thought that a “type of this walnut would be “perfectly hardy in Northern New England, but only noted a few trees in Massachusetts and that “properly speaking the tree is not hardy there.” Wilson collected seeds from “the colder parts of Western China . . . in hope of securing a perfectly hardy type.” Wilson said that only one of these trees did well at the Arnold Arboretum.
This Quercus alba (white oak) [M-20] was growing on the Northern slope of the Homeopathic Hospital in Jamaica Plain. The white oak is the primary North American species of oak used medicinally, although it is uncertain if this is why the tree was planted on the grounds of the Homeopathic Hospital. The white oak has many homeopathic medicinal properties, since two of the main ingredients in oak bark are quercin and tannin. Quercin is similar to salicin, which is in turn, similar to aspirin and found in willow trees. Both quercin and salicin are natural pain-killers and anti-inflammatory medicines. The bark of the white oak is prized for its astringent and antiseptic properties and is used to stop internal bleeding, and to lower fever. It is also used as an expectorant, and has anti-emetic, anti-diarrheal, and anti-venomous properties. It is used for mouth sores and conditions like gingivitis and thrush, which involve turning the bark into tea or toothpaste.
Brown, Charlotte Erichson. Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants. New York: Dover, 1989.
Bruton-Seal, Julie and Seal, Matthew. Backyard Medicine: Harvest and Make Your Own Herbal Remedies. Skyhorse Publishing, 2009.
The Avery Oak [M-21, M-22] is a town icon for Dedham, Massachusetts, and dendrochronology shows that the tree actually matured fully before the town of Dedham (previously called “Contentment”) was founded in 1636. The tree was initially a center for religious meetings prior to the establishment of Parish Church in 1638, and the tree was also a town bulletin board for announcing notices and events in the 1880s. The tree almost became construction material for “Old Ironsides.” Mr. Avery was offered 70 dollars for the tree, but declined the offer because Mrs. Avery was supposedly very attached to the tree. William Avery did, however, make a chair and table from branches that fell down during a violent thunderstorm. He presented the chair and table to Dedham Historical Society. The Historical Society was also given the tree itself in 1886 and tree surgeons struggled to keep it thriving. A 1938 hurricane damaged the tree beyond repair, and in 1973 another thunderstorm finally destroyed it. The pieces of the tree are guarded by police in the historical society, since people try to sneak away with branches and other parts of the tree as souvenirs.
Avery, Jane Greenough. Genealogical Record of the Dedham Branch of the Avery Family in America. Plymouth: Avery and Doten, 1893.
Finestone, Todd. “Avery Oak: Gone but Not Forgotten.” [DT] August 6, 1975.
Roberts, Robert C. “A Tree Above Price.” American Forests July 1969.
Simmons, James Raymond. The Historic Trees of Massachusetts. Boston, Marshall Jones Company, 1919.
This tree [M-23] is known as the St. Edward’s Elm because it was planted directly across the street from St. Edward’s Church in Medfield, Massachusetts. In 1900, the tree was considered to be 150 years old, so it was probably planted circa 1750.
Desorgher, Richard. “This Old Town: The St. Edward Elm.” Hometown Weekly [Wednesday May 8, 2013]).
The Picea glauca albertiana forma conica [M-24, M-25] is a dwarf cultivar that is especially popular in gardens. This “dwarf variety” was found by “Professor Jack near Laggan in Alberta in 1904,” and many specimens were cultivated from it. The “Professor Jack” in question is John George Jack (1861-1949), who worked at the Arboretum who worked at the Arboretum as lecturer in arboriculture in 1891 and went to Alberta, Canada in 1904 with Professor Alfred Rehder, where they discovered the dwarf white spruce. It is conic, compact, and in 1921 the largest one in Boston was no more than 2 feet high. It is easily and quickly propagated from cuttings and a favorite in rock gardens.
The Eliot Oak [M-28] stands “a few rods east of the Unitarian Church in S. Natick.” It is a very old white oak that possibly dates back to at least the 1650s if a legend is true. This legend involves a triangle of trees, of which the Eliot oak was a part. The Reverend John Eliot (1603-1690) supposedly used to preach to the Indians underneath this venerable oak in South Natick, which is why it earned its name. Professor Stowe, in an address on the 200th anniversary of the town of Natick, described Eliot as “a man of great versatility, and very superior intellectual power. Doubtless he had his equals, but never a superior in Christian zeal and goodness.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) commemorated this oak in his famous “Sonnet on Eliot’s Oak” (1877):
THOU ancient oak! whose myriad leaves are lou
With sounds of unintelligible speech
Sounds as of surges on a shingly beach
Or multitudinous murmurs of a crowd
With some mysterious gift of tongues endowed
Thou speakest a different dialect to each
To me a language that no man can teach
Of a lost race, long vanished like a cloud
For underneath thy shade, in days remote
Seated like Abraham at eventide
Beneath the oaks of Mamre, the unknown
Apostle of the Indians, Eliot, wrote
His Bible in a language that hath died
And is forgotten, save by thee alone.
“History of the First Congregational Church of Natick.”
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Complete Poetical Works. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co, 1893).
Hurd, Duane Hamilton. History of Middlesex County. (Philadelphia: J.W. Lewis & Co, 1890).
Ulmus americana Massachusetts (South Natick) [M-30]. Tree 90 ft. x 15 ft. Photograph by E.H. Wilson, December 26, 1923.
The Rugg Elm [M-31], which is also known as the Gates Elm, is in Framingham, Massachusetts.
Specifically, it is 200 yards from Turnpike Road, between Framingham and Fayville near the grounds of the Country Club. It was the largest tree in New England. The circumference one and three feet from the ground was 28.5 feet. The spread of the branches was 145 feet, and the height 70 feet. It looks like two trees because the trunk is split close to the bottom, but it is just one. One of these trunks is 14 feet in circumference, while the other is 17 feet. There is a peculiar formation between these two trunks that is called a “nubbin.” The Rugg Elm was estimated between 300-400 years of age in the 1920s.
Lee, Robert (ed.) The Modern City. (Baltimore: Modern City Publishing Co., January 1920).
Simmons, James Raymond. The Historic Trees of Massachusetts. Boston, Marshall Jones Company, 1919.
The Juglans nigra (black walnut) [M-37, M-38] is usually 100-150 feet tall. The wood of this tree is usually hard, strong, and heavy, and a rich dark brown color with a satiny texture. It is native to the Midwest and east central United states. Black walnut had commercial value even for early colonists in North America, where it was cultivated. In 1610 in Virginia, William Strachey stated that it was being shipped back to England as a valued commodity, but the colonists also seemed to value it as well. Black walnut was used in interior decorating and cabinet-making because of its fine color and texture. It was also used for gunstocks and coffins, as well as in boat and ship building. The walnuts were also edible and used in cooking or eaten raw, both by colonists and also by Native Americans who lived in the Mississippi Basin. The trees were first introduced into Europe in the mid-17th century by John Tradescant (1608-1662) and first described by John Parkinson (1567-1650) in Theatrum Botanicum.
Charles Sprague Sargent considered the Waverly Oaks [M-39, M-40] to be “all things considered, the most interesting trees in eastern Massachusetts, and although there are larger Oaks in New England and in the Middle States, a group containing so many large trees is not often seen now anywhere in eastern America…and well-known to all Bostonians interested in nature,and strangers not infrequently make the pilgrimage to Belmont to look upon these venerable products of Massachusetts soil.” This group of trees consisted of 22 large white oaks, 1 swamp white oak, and one large elm growing on an area of two or three acres. In 1890, the smallest of them was estimated at 1,000 years old, but this might be an exaggeration because there were petitions being made to preserve these trees around the 1890s. In the year 1890, they were probably 408-508 years old, at the very most. They grew a few hundred yards away from the Waverly train station, directly opposite of the property of the trustees of the Massachusetts General Hospital. A small public park was erected around these trees to protect them. Several painters associated with the Boston Art Club urged the Art Club to purchase them and the ground that they grew on as “sketching ground for Boston artists, as Fontainebleau serves for Paris.” These “Waverly Oaks” were also of great interest to Henry Warren Manning (1860-1938), who was an influential American landscape designer and promoter of the informal and naturalistic “wild garden” approach to garden design. The Waverly Oaks survived only a few decades beyond the establishment of the Beaver Brook Reservation. In the 1920s, they died because of ice storms and old age.
Sargent, Charles S. “The Waverly Oaks.” Garden and Forest, February 19, 1890.
The Boxford Elm [M-48, M-49, M-50] marks the location of a treaty between settlers and Native Americans to establish the city of Boxford. Samuel English, Joseph English, and John Umpee claimed title to and demanded money for territory included in Boxford. On January 15, 1701, there was a town meeting held between Native Americans and several other prominent citizens of the town (Thomas and John Perley, Thomas Hazen, and Joseph Bridges). This meeting was held at Thomas Perley’s tavern, which was marked by a huge elm tree, called the Boxford Elm. This is how the tree became associated with the city itself and a prominent landmark.
This is a 1924 photograph of the legendary black walnut (Juglans nigra) tree [M-51, M-52, M-53, M-54, M-55] on the grounds of F.W. Cheever in Saugus, Massachusetts, close to the Soldier’s Monument. Supposedly, the famous Puritan minister Cotton Mather (1663-1728) stopped to rest beneath the shade of the Cheever Walnut when he traveled by horseback from Boston to Salem to witness the witchcraft executions on Gallows Hill in 1692. In 1891, John Robinson characterized the Cheever Walnut as “the largest black walnut in this vicinity.” In the same year, it was reported as being 50-60 feet tall, 3 feet in diameter, with a circumference of 13 feet at 5 feet from the ground. It was supposedly a very old tree, at least 216 years old. It came from England, and is an “excellent example of the re-importation of American trees to America.” The black walnut was one of the very first American trees to become popular in Europe. When part of the trunk was cut down, it was placed in the Peabody Museum as an artifact.
Robinson, John. Our Trees: A popular account of the trees in the streets and gardens of Salem, and of the native trees of Essex County, Massachusetts, with the location of trees, and historical and botanical notes. Salem: N.A. Horton & Son, 1891.
This photograph depicts the monumental marble entrance to Abington Grove, with soldiers flanking the sides of the arch and an American eagle on top. The white pine trees at Abington seen beyond this arch [M-56] are collectively known as “Abolition Grove,” supposedly “where the Civil War began.” Some of the greatest minds of the Civil War period, both men and women, gave speeches about abolition in this location. Noah Webster, who loved nature and the open air, lectured here, as did William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison spoke on the subject of West Indian Emancipation in 1854 and said that “The great event which we celebrate to-day, shows that slavery can only be overthrown by adherence to principle.” A huge boulder erected by Abington soldier Moses N. Arnold marks the spot where the orators spoke. There is a copper inscription which lists the speakers and a poem by Garrison. In addition to have immense historical significance, the people of Abington frequently celebrate the anniversaries of their town in this location.
Simmons, James Raymond. The Historic Trees of Massachusetts. Boston, Marshall Jones Company, 1919.
The Wethersfield Elm [M-58, M-59, M-60, M-61, M-62] was considered to be the largest elm in the United States after a contest of the American Genetic Society in 1915, which compared 337 trees. It used to stand on the east side of Broad Street Green in historic Wethersfield Connecticut, founded in 1633-1634. There was a sign attached to this tree that described its age and some of its dimensions (9′ 6″ in diameter, 29′ 6″ in circumference, 172 years old in 1930). It was also over 100 feet tall and had a branch spread of over 100 feet. Supposedly, Charles Wesley (1707-1788), the famous English head of the Methodist movement), preached beneath this elm. It was destroyed by a storm on September 21, 1938.
Randall, Charles and Edgerton, Priscilla. Famous Trees. (Washington D.C., 1938).
Many different American Elms are associated with George Washington, with many fables associated with each one. It is important not to confuse them. This particular elm, in Palmer, Massachusetts, stood on the south side of Old Bay. It stood on the grounds of and old tavern stand owned by Daniel Graves and his son Aaron. George Washington supposedly visited the Palmer Washington Elm on two different occasions. On the first, undocumented visit of June 30, 1775, Washington was accompanied by his staff, General Lee, and deputation sent from Cambridge. They supposedly rested and lunched under the shade of this tree, ordering “milk and other necessaries” from Mr. Graves’ nearby tavern. There is considerably more evidence for the second visit in October 15-22, 1789, when Washington addressed the citizens of Palmer beneath the tree, as seen in the Mt. Vernon papers. E.H. Wilson’s photograph of the tree shows a tombstone marker next to the tree. The marker commemorates the tree and reads:
“Under this elm
Passed on June 30, 1775
and again on [October] 22, 1789
On the first date tradition says that he addressed the citizens of Palmer
Erected by The Palmer Historical Society
June 30, 1805.”
There seems to be some historical confusion about when Washington addressed the citizens of Palmer, since Temple’s “History of Palmer” says that he did this in 1789, but the Historical Society of Palmer says it happened in 1775 on the tombstone marker of 1805.
Temple, Josiah Howard. History of the Town of Palmer. Palmer, Massachusetts: Published by the Town of Palmer, 1889.
From comparing the photograph with descriptions, this might be the King Philip Oak in Taunton, Massachusetts [M-66, M-67], which was a large oak with almost identical dimensions on 98 Somerset Avenue, the corner of White Street and Somerset Avenue. King Philip supposedly met with his council here during the bloody King Philip War of 1675-1676, a conflict between the Indians and English settlers in New England.
English expansion of settlements in Massachusetts and in neighboring colonies increased after this war. In 1926, 2 years after Wilson took this photo, the Lydia Cobb Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution put a plaque on the tree that reads “THIS MARKS THE PHILIP OAK, A SENTINEL OF NEARLY FOUR CENTURIES.” The tree slowly rotted, and became a hazard. In 1973, a large branch fell on a parked car nearby, and 10 years later the tree was taken down. The King Philip tree’s legacy lived on, however. In 1950, a citizen of Taunton planted an acorn from the King Philip tree nearby, so there is a so-called “son of King Philip.”
Schultz, Eric B. and Douglas, Michael J. King Philip’s War. [Countryman Press, 1999].
Randall, Charles Edgar and Clepper, Henry. Famous Historic Trees. [Washington, DC: American Forestry Association, 1977].
In his 1919 book, Historic Trees of Massachusetts, James Simmons concludes with the Malus pumila trees of Marshfield Hills [M-70, M-71, M-72, M-73], which he describes as “the most magnificent in the whole collection.” He continues, “Behold an apple tree having the sinews of an oak, the spread of an elm, and a crown surpassing both in the beauty of its leaves and blossoms!” He describes its blossoms as being close to the size of “wild roses,” and says that its largest limbs are close to 6 feet in girth, stretching 30 feet outwards. . . The trunk was 14 and a half feet at the ground and 10 feet at the narrowest part. It was on the estate of Mr. Livermore. According to Simmons, a resident of Marshfield named Steven Sherman planted it over 100 years prior to 1919.
Simmons, James Raymond. The Historic Trees of Massachusetts [Boston: Marshall Jones Co., 1919].