Extreme weather, diseases, pests, and age are taking their toll on the 9,000 oak, maple, sycamore, poplar, ash, and other trees lining Haddonfield’s streets. Trees lost to residential and road construction, as well as to utility work, also create gaps in the canopy that has for generations beautified the landscape, boosted property values, and cleansed the air in the Camden County borough of 11,000.
Similar forces are chopping away at street trees in many older suburbs and city neighborhoods across the Philadelphia region. But in Haddonfield, the loss three years ago of a historic buttonwood tree (also known as sycamore) and the toppling of a massive black oak (that was among the state’s oldest) got local arborists, woodworkers, and other volunteers motivated. And they have begun salvaging and transforming pieces of these beloved trees into furniture, decorative items, and even a striking work of art.
Historians, businesspeople, and leaders of Haddonfield institutions and civic organizations also have joined the effort, which is in its infancy. Participants are energized by the possibilities of encouraging stewardship, teaching students, and raising money to plant new trees. They’re drawing ideas from “urban wood utilization” programs in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the country.
“When you put all those connections together with somebody else who has additional connections, suddenly ... things can happen,” said David Hunter, a longtime resident and publisher of the Haddonfield Today news site. In January 2018, he and Deborah Garwood, a trustee of the Historical Society of Haddonfield, witnessed workers cutting down that dying, 250-year-old buttonwood on Kings Highway.
“I had a feeling that we shouldn’t just let it be chipped or burned,” said Hunter, adding, “if we don’t take action to preserve our history, we’ll lose it.”
Said Garwood: “I grew up in Haddonfield, and that tree definitely was a landmark for me. Instead of scrapping trees [that fall or are cut down], they can be a source of high-quality wood to be made into things by people in the community.”
She and Hunter organized a salvage effort that yielded massive trunk and other sections of the tree, which was locally legendary as having been on a route of British army troops evacuating Philadelphia in 1778. Their Buttonwood Project inspired Haddonfield sculptor and artist John Giannotti, who incorporated some of the tree’s bark into a mixed-media piece he created for the Haddonfield Public Library.
Meanwhile, furniture maker Jeff Braddock designed and built a magnificent communal table for the King’s Road Brewing Company downtown out of buttonwood planks. The wood turner Fred Chase is crafting replicas of a gavel owned by the Haddonfield Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and other local artisans are working with pieces of the trees as well.
“That bark covered a tree that was alive before America was America,” said Giannotti, also the creator of the dinosaur sculpture known as Haddy and several other pieces of public art in Haddonfield. “It’s not just bark.”
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Said Chase: “We’re transforming wood that would be cut up for firewood or ground to mulch into something of beauty.”
After a fierce storm last June 3 brought a black oak crashing down on a house on Colonial Avenue, the Rotary Club of Haddonfield, the Haddonfield Foundation, and members of the Haddonfield Shade Tree Commission got involved. And a grassroots movement to cultivate public support for the borough’s trees was born.
“David Hunter is a Rotarian and he brought us his whole experience with the Buttonwood Project,” Rotary club president Denise Stuart said. “We set up a committee, applied for the grant from the foundation, and will raise money to pay for two library tables that Jeff Braddock will build.” (Garwood, also a member, contributed a vintage design for handsome mission-style tables culled from a book in her private collection).
Thanks to a $3,000 grant from the foundation, slabs of the black oak are being professionally kiln-dried in Manheim, Lancaster County, where Rotarians with pickup trucks delivered them. Some of the wood will be made into reading tables for the library, which stands about a block from where the tree fell.
“People in focus groups told us there need to be more places to sit in the library,” said library director Eric Zino, another Rotarian. “We hope to create a plaque that will include a piece of the tree, along with a laser-engraved image of the tree as it stood. This is a fun project to work on.”
Haddonfield is losing more than 200 trees a year and planting about 80 annually. Mayor Neal Rochford, who welcomes the new initiative, said the borough spends nearly $500,000 a year caring for, pruning, removing, and planting trees. Haddonfield maintains a two-member public-works crew for that purpose, but must contract out work involving the largest specimens — of which there are many.
Diseases such as bacterial leaf scorch, and voracious, invasive insects such as the emerald ash borer and the spotted lanternfly are wreaking havoc. Virtually all ash trees in proximity to other infected trees will die, rendering them extremely hazardous and in need of immediate removal. There’s also the continuing threat of extreme weather events caused by climate change.
So the members of Haddonfield’s new urban wood initiative are most welcome, borough officials said.
“In some cases, we’re trying to undo mistakes that were made 50 years ago, when whole rows of pin oaks were planted on a street” and have all died at once, said Robin Potter, who heads up Haddonfield’s shade tree commission. She was recently named board chair of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
“Sugar maples used to thrive here, but now it’s too hot for them,” Potter said. “We’re trying to broaden the species in the canopy to deal with climate issues [so as] not have a monoculture. We’re very focused on trying to improve what the canopy will be 50 years from now.”
Potter also noted that the canopy consists not only of street and other trees maintained by the borough, but the 10,000 trees on private property in Haddonfield.
“We currently estimate Haddonfield’s public and private urban forest canopy at 41.1% of its total land area,” said Potter. “At least 40% tree canopy cover is widely recommended for metropolitan areas in the Northeast.”
Scott McElhone, a shade tree commissioner who maintains its Facebook page, is optimistic.
”The canopy has really been taking a beating in recent years,” he said. “But the community is starting to notice what’s happening.”
Braddock, the furniture maker, noted that upcycling, rather than simply mulching, trees is beginning take off as people become more interested in sustainability. He’s had conversations with Moorestown’s Perkins Center for the Arts about salvaging lumber from a dying beech on the property, “so that the tree can live on” in new forms.