State Journal-Register

May 14, 2002

Lincoln tree tale doesn't ring true, experts find 


WASHINGTON - The beloved beech whose comforting branches were said to have provided shade to Abraham Lincoln may have been nothing more than a tall tale.

In February, dozens of dignitaries gathered to mourn the death of the 50-foot tree. Lura Lynn Ryan, wife of the Illinois governor, ceremoniously accepted sprouts from the tree that had stood near the cottage known as Lincoln's summer White House.

But when the dead trunk was cut back and tree experts studied its rings, they concluded that the tree was at most 140 years old - too young to support the Lincoln lore that has grown up around it.

Lincoln supposedly liked to read and play with his son, Tad, and escape from the pressures of the Civil War under its thick,drooping branches.

"I very much doubt that this tree is more than 120 to 140 years old, and thus it seems unlikely that it was alive during Lincoln's presidency," concluded one of the experts, Thomas Yanosky, a research botanist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

That surprised officials with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The tree was previously estimated to be 250 years old. Two years ago, the National Trust put the Lincoln summer cottage and the tree on its annual list of the 11 most
endangered historic sites in the country.

President Bill Clinton designated the cottage and surrounding landscape - including the beech tree - a national monument.

The tree and cottage are on the grounds of the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home, about three miles from the White House.

"I think we're resigned to the fact that it's not as old as we originally were led to believe," said National Trust spokesman Hap Connors.

"That's OK. That's what we're supposed to do. We're supposed to be credible and accurate in our information .. . it's better to be right than wrong and keep perpetuating these myths."

It's not the first time a legend of a famous tree has been debunked, he noted. The so-called Washington Elm in Cambridge, Mass., was said to be where Gen. George Washington in 1775 assumed command of his army. After the tree's death in 1923,
a Harvard University professor determined it wasn't old enough to have been "a grand old elm" in Washington's day as some of the literature described it.

The exact age of the "Lincoln tree", which died last year of old age and a fungus infection, could have been determined only if the tree had been cut down to the stump. But that won't happen any time soon. About 15 feet of the tree's trunk was left standing to support low branches that had touched the ground and formed their
own root system.

It was a cutting from the tree's progeny that was donated to Illinois in February.

"I am disappointed that what we had believed was a unique link to President Lincoln's life may not, in fact, be true, but I'll leave that up to the scientists," Mrs. Ryan said in a statement issued by her office.

"There are so many wonderful stories surrounding the tree and I for one would have liked to have believed in the legend of the "old soldier,"' she said.

The sprouts she accepted are being cultivated in a federal arboretum and won't be given to the state for several years. The decision on whether to accept them will be up to next administration, her aide said.

What is certain is that the legend of the Lincoln tree will die hard.

"I'm going to hang on a little bit," said Lincoln historian Harold Holzer, who spoke at the tree's eulogy in February. 

"Maybe we accepted it too readily. But I don't think we should dismiss it too quickly either.... Oral tradition needs to be taken seriously."