Laying Our Gentle Giant to Rest

17/04/13 7:17 PM


Today has been so exhausting in so many ways.

The plantation has been overrun with people all day and we cut down our three trees.

My first person today was a local teenager who is working on pulling bricks for us. He is doing a great job, but it seems to be slowing down as he is finding it harder to pull ones that are so covered with over grown grass. The next person was the Master bee keeper and his wife preparing for the tree with the bee hive to come down. Then we had a landscaping service come in to give us an estimate on the grounds. No sooner did I finish with him then the tree service people arrived. Then a newspaper reporter and photographer arrived. While all this was going on, our air conditioner/heating company returned to work on the system to prepare it for opening. Then the woodcarvers came in to watch the trees come down. We even have a stray dog show up around mid-day! Needless to say, the plantation has been as busy as a bee hive.

Our first tree to come down was the Red Maple with the bee hive. The Master Bee Keeper needed to be somewhere later so we didn’t want to make him wait. I stood back as I watch Matthew with MOTs Tree Service pull out his chainsaw. That is when the emotions hit. I knew I would be upset and would shed a tear or two. But what ended up happening was really overwhelming.


Matthew started cutting and pulled a small chuck out of the base as a start. Then he made sure the area was clear and called out “All Clear”. This I would come to understand was the signal for the end. He quickly started cutting around the tree in a circle. Then is when I heard the cracking. Before I knew it, our Red Maple dropped to the ground. As soon as the tree hit the ground, my emotions sprang up and slapped me in the face. I had to turn away as I started crying. You would have thought I was watching someone I love die.






After about two or three minutes, I was able to pull it together and watch the Master Bee Keepers at work. Quickly they ran over to the tree in their suits and started searching the hive. But it didn’t take long for me to realize something was wrong. The Bee Keeper turned to me and told me that when the tree came down and because it was hollow inside, the tree collapsed around the bee hive and the bees were trapped in the tree. It turned into a rescue mission to see if we could save the bees.


Matthew came back and started clearing branches from the tree, trying to get to the hive. Once he was there, he started making cuts close to where the bees were in hopes of freeing them. We all held our breath. One cut, nothing. Two cuts, nothing. Three cuts close, but not there. Then he hit it. The bee keeper came back over and started searching again. Still not close enough.


While this was going on, the tree crew started working on the oldest tree, the hickory close to the front of the house. I walked over and sat down on the porch and watched as they dropped branches from the tree to prepare for it to come down. Every cut and ever limb was just like a part of me was coming off with it. By this time, I was also talking to the newspaper reporter, Cathy Jett with the Fredericksburg Free Lance Star. It seemed to help keeping me busy talking about the plantation.


Cathy Jett with Matthew from MOTs Tree Service and John our woodcarver from Virginia

Cathy Jett with Matthew from MOTs Tree Service and John our woodcarver from Virginia

Then the time came. Matthew came in and as he had before cut a chuck from the base. Now this tree is pretty big, so he ended up cutting a total of three chucks out. Then the call from Matthew, “All Clear.” I knew the end was coming. I stood up on the porch focused on the tree. Tears had already started rolling down my cheek and I tried to brush them away without fogging up the camera viewer. Then the crack. I could feel the breath rush out of my chest as I uttered a small cry. Then it happened. The tree dropped to the ground.






I quickly turned my head and cried harder. But what amazed me now as I sit here and think about it was the silence. No one said a word. Not a sound came from anywhere. Not a bird, not a car, nothing. It was silence for just a minute, then two, then three. All you could hear was my crying. I have to say I was shaken by this experience. My whole being was crying out for the loss of this old tree.


Then as I worked to calm myself, I could hear them discussing the age growth rings. Everyone wanted to know. Was this tree old enough to have been standing here when James Madison was born? After a quick count, Matthew said that it looked like it was around 180 years. That would place its starting year to around 1833. It wasn’t standing here where Madison was born. Nor was it here during his years he could have walked by it. James Madison would have been alive at Montpelier during its first years, but he would have been in his final years. Later Matthew would reconfirm that it was around 180 give or take 20 years. This means it could have been standing during his term as president, but still not old enough to have been here during his childhood. Matthew would also confirm that it is not a hickory tree. It is a variety of mulberry trees that are not indigenous to Virginia. This means that it was brought here and planted. It also showed sights of attempts to save it in the past. There were steel rods, cables and even concert inside the hollow where someone tried to keep it together.



But one thing we do know. It was standing here during the Civil War and would have witnessed the Union Army encamped at Belle Grove. It would also have seen the detachment chasing John Wilkes Booth that stopped and rested at Belle Grove. They could have easily slept under or even against its massive truck at that time.


By this time, the bee keepers had gotten into the hive and had started recovering the honey combs and bees. They started moving worker bees to the new hive, but still the queen had eluded them. So they set up the new hive close to the open trunk in hopes they would move to the new hive.

Then we headed to the Ash. This tree has seen many bad storms and had lost two of its main sections on top. The trunk was also cracked in half and looked to be hollow. I have to say, I didn’t cry as this tree came down. Not that it didn’t mean as much to me as the other two. But this was almost like a mercy cutting. It was in such bad shape that it was just sad to see it suffer as it was.





When the tree came down, we were greeted by a huge cloud of yellow pollen. All I could think about was how I was going to be sneezing tonight! When it came down, the crack in the trunk just twisted leaving part of the trunk standing. As I walked over, Matthew called out. Inside the trunk you could see what looked like dirt. From this he pulled out this huge larva. It was almost scary! Next they found a beetle and we realized that we had found a nest of Rhinoceros beetles.


The larval stages of this beetle can be several years long. The larvae feed on rotten wood and the adults feed on nectar, plant sap and fruit. The females, which have no horns, can lay 50 eggs on average. The males have the horns. Males can live up to 2 to 3 years. Females generally die not long after they mate.


Matthew collected several of them and will be taking them to a place called the “Bug Box” in Fredericksburg. Here they will keep them to educate children on the species. I think that it is wonderful that we were able to provide a new home for them.


All that was left after this was to grind the stumps and cut the pieces for transport. The woodcarvers that were here today are from Virginia. They will be taking most of the wood to have it milled. From there, the wood will be made into either furniture or historic pens. Part of this wood will also be going to New Jersey to another Historic Pen Company to produce more pens. These companies are doing this free of charge and will be offering these pens and items for sale later. The part of the funds from the sale of these items will be given back to Belle Grove to go into our “Restoration Fund” for our three outbuildings. One of the best parts is the woodcarvers from Virginia will be making us a small colonial table from the wood.

We have gotten a lot of comments as to why we decided to cut these trees down. Believe me, if we could have saved them, we would have. But all of them showed sights of decay. If we had left any of them, they could have fallen at any time. If the Red Maple had fallen, we could have lost two other health trees. If the mulberry tree (what we thought was a hickory) had fallen, it could have damaged this 221 year old plantation mansion. We didn’t take this decide lightly and we loved them very much.

The old mulberry tree (what we thought was a hickory) on the inside

The old mulberry tree (what we thought was a hickory) on the inside

The inside bee hive in the Red Maple

The inside bee hive in the Red Maple

The inside of the trunk of the Ash

The inside of the trunk of the Ash

So now, I am sitting here in the formal dining room trying hard to get use to the new view of the bowling green. It looks so much larger without the two trees in it. If you stand and look at the mansion from the bowling green, it also looks so much bigger. We still have all the wood sitting in piles in and around the bowling green waiting for transport. I can’t image what it is going to look like after it is clear. The Bee Keepers have left the new hive near the old bee hive in hopes the bees will move to the new. They never were able to find the queen. They said if we are lucky and because they are exposed, they might move to the new hive. We will see tomorrow when he returns.


What I do know is that I will miss that old tree. I have only been around it for two years, but with the tears I cried today, you would have thought I planted it. But with is downing, so too goes the last witness of so many years. Children coming and going, families standing in its shade, soldiers resting after a long ride, storms and years of quietly waiting for the next family. If this tree could talk, what stories it must have had to tell.

To see all the photos from today

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Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Belle Grove History | 77 Comments »

77 Comments on “Laying Our Gentle Giant to Rest”

  1. becca givens Says:

    What a visceral and draining day — I would have reacted the same … thank you for the thorough post and photos of the events.

  2. You are welcome. I think I will sleep pretty hard tonight.

  3. Amy Says:

    It’s always sad to witness the final moments of something so majestic, but that tree will always live on in the memory of those who partook of its beauty and shade.

  4. Thank you. I hope so.

  5. Shari Says:

    Wow,, amazing on so many fronts – and yes I can see why it was so exhausting!

  6. Thank you!

  7. I love you for caring about those trees. But you did the right thing. Here is a story that I hope will make you feel better. Here in San Diego, they planted eucalyptus trees because they thought they could make a fortune selling them for railroad ties when the railroads were new. Only problem: they were too soft. So the trees just grew and grew, and they are the only trees of any size here. But they have very shallow roots. A strong wind will knock them over in a heartbeat. Think big tree and small support system. I used to be really upset when they cut one of them down, being like you about history and trees. But a few years back, a lady went out to walk her dog in a park in Old Town San Diego where she walked him every day. Strong winds in just a few seconds brought down one of the huge eucalyptus and crushed her. She died right there in just a few minutes. So with the public on the property, and with the trees being so old and with issues, I know it hurt, but you did the right thing. You’ve probably saved some human lives.

  8. Thank you Deborah. I know we did the right thing after seeing the inside of the trees. But like you said, it was still hard.

  9. What an amazing post. You had me crying too! Thank you for bringing me along to stand with you on the momentous day.

  10. Thank you so much for standing with me! Here’s a tissue..

  11. seniorhiker Says:

    I appreciate that you had to make a difficult decision in regard to these trees, but I’m convinced you made the correct decision. I hope the queen bee moves to the new hive.

  12. Thank you. Some decisions are hard ones. We hope she will too. We will have to wait until the morning to see.

  13. I hope you are having nice piece of furniture made with some of that beautiful wood. It’s legacy will then live on 🙂

  14. Thank you! From what the woodcarvers tell me, they are hoping to make me a colonial table for the mansion. I think every time I see it, I might shed a tear in remembering this day.

  15. That is awesome!

  16. The table, not the tears – lol!

  17. 🙂

  18. terry1954 Says:

    my heart broke as the history of the trees fell. I could feel your tears my friend. now you must move forward and make beautiful memories for future generations to read about you

  19. Thank you Terry. It is support like yours that I have come to lean on in times like this.

  20. Marc Kuhn Says:

    Nice blog today…was fun/sad to read, but a feel-good nonetheless as you move on with your project. Thanks for sharing.

  21. Thank you Marc. Lets hope we can move on in the project with less tears.

  22. Elephant Says:

    Oh my, that larva and beetle is super frightening! Your life is like a homeowner times ten! Big house and big land = big trouble! With much real estate comes much responsibility! I’ve had bees and wasps and all kind of things, but never a big fat larva! Sorry about that! Trees have to come down eventually – keep the old and plant some new! That’s the best you can do.

  23. Thank you! We may just do that! Yes, that larva was like something you see in a horror movie!

  24. Amy Says:

    I’d be emotional too… You made a right decision.

  25. Thank you. I appreciate the shoulder.

  26. John Says:

    An excellent post Michelle! Sorry about the trees, they look very much ready to come down though. Not worth risking the investment in the mansion. It’s one more step toward something really good for you and your husband too.

  27. Thank you John. We know it was the right decision after seeing the inside of the trees. But its the loss that hurts so.

  28. Tough as it was it sounds as if you made the right decisions for all those dear trees. Life is life and destroying it should never be taken lightly. I would have cried too. 🙁 … Reminds me of an old maple we have in town which has been struck by lightning several times and is completely split in two. I don’t know how it’s still living, but it is and every spring as I drive by, which I do every day, I check to see if it’s budding and always smile when I see it is. It’s so beautiful and full of character in the fall when the leaves change. It’s a town landmark propped up by its owner with wood supports and chains, and surrounded by a chain link fence with a lock on the gate so no one can get within 20 feet of it without the key. If it ever came down the whole town would miss it. I would certainly shed a tear … Thanks for sharing. Will you plant a tree or two?

  29. Thank you for sharing your story. I know that it was right. And I know that their time had come. But what gets me is that it was like one of the last reminders of that time. We will plant a tree or two or three to remind us of their loss.

  30. What I think is wonderful is the fact you’re using the wood from these trees to create items that can be sold to raise funds for the restoration of other parts of the plantation. I’ll buy a pen when their available. I’d love to make a contribution and own a piece of history … 😉

  31. Thank you! That means a lot! I know they will go to good places where people that knew about their loss will love them even more.

  32. It’s a lovely way to honour the trees and share their history. I look forward to hearing when the pens are available. 🙂

  33. chr1 Says:

    Sorry to see him go!

  34. Me too.

  35. I hope that table the wood carvers are going to make you is from the red maple. The wood is BEAUTIFUL, especially if they use an oil stain: that makes the grain POP.

  36. I think it may be for the red maple and if possible from the mulberry. John told me that when the mulberry came down, he was standing in the middle of the bowling green and could he me crying. So I think he may try to use the mulberry since it was the one that I loved the most.

  37. dogear6 Says:

    My daughter had to make a similar decision about the huge Bradford pear trees in front of her house. It really wrecked her privacy, but at some point she’d be fixing a big hole in the front of her porch. Still, it sucked to do it.


  38. Thank you for sharing her story. I know I wouldn’t want the mansion to be damage and the loss of the mulberry was worth the safety of it. But yes, it still sucks to have to do it.

  39. owlandash Says:

    I just discovered your blog Andreas the post of the loss of your trees. Such a shame and sad too.

  40. Thank you Gary. I hope you will return to read about happier times ahead!

  41. A wonderful post, in spite of the heartbreak – so fascinating about the bees and the beetles… I know, it feels as though your heart is being torn out when a tree dies, doesn’t it… they see for every tree that comes down you should plant six new ones, and what with disease, etc etc, only one will make it to a hundred years….

  42. Thank you. It is nice to know that I was able to see one that made it before it came down. We will plant more.

  43. Wow, this post made me a little weepy. I’m sorry they were beyond saving. 🙁

  44. I am sorry too. I will miss them.

  45. vanbraman Says:

    Very interesting to see what was found in the different trees. A sad day, but one that will live in your memory for the good things as well. I am glad that the wood is being put to use and that some of the funds will come back to the plantation.

  46. Thank you! I know it was the right thing to do, but they will be missed.

  47. Chuck Ring Says:

    Dadgumit. Will you guys ever slow down and get a chance to rest.

  48. Chuck, I took your advice today and called in sick. It was a very good day.

  49. Very touching post. Loved it x

  50. Thank you

  51. Amazing pictures great post I have to come visit this summer

  52. Thank you. We hope to see you!

  53. colmel Says:

    It’s always so hard to say good-bye to an “old friend,” whatever species they happen to be. All living things have a life cycle. What you did was help old friends at the end of theirs. So many living things don’t have anyone sorrow for their passing. It’s nice to know that these three trees had you to grieve for them and to pass along their story to us.

  54. Aw thank you! It was a sad thing to do, even though I know it was right.

  55. nerdtrips Says:

    It’s sad to see an old tree go, but when you saw the disgusting larva inside, you know you did the right thing! Seriously, those things are gross. Even though you are sad about the trees, you can feel comforted in that you are doing what is best for the house.

  56. I agree. I will just miss them.

  57. David Says:

    Better to remove the trees than to have them tumble onto the mansion. When you get your small colonial table from the woodcarvers, you’ll have another story on how it was made from the tree that lived there.

  58. Thank you. I know I will. But I will also look at that table and know that its is no longer watching over the mansion as it had before.

  59. Tom Reeder Says:

    I admire your appreciation of the history that surrounds you — not just the old buildings, but the grounds, too. You mentioned that you intend to plant some new trees, and I like to think that someday, long after all of us are gone, future generations will enjoy the shade they provide in that beautiful spot.

  60. Thank you. I really feel like I am suppose to be here to care for this plantation. It is would drew us here. I know someday when someone sits under one of the new trees, I will be smiling down knowing that it was history I made here.

  61. I totally relate to the emotions when losing a tree even if it is intended. We have several enormous oaks and I try to picture what they have seen in their time. I loved that you took the time to share the bees and the beetles! Well done!

  62. Thank you! I know I wondered what this tree has seen too.

  63. It’s hard to imagine. Good luck with all your projects. Maybe Virginia Plantation Honey?

  64. Maybe so!

  65. One project at a time! How many times have we heard that? It’s so good to have all the ideas. I know your venture is going to be wonderful. Can’t wait to visit!

  66. Thank you! I know! There is just so much that needs to be done and time is running out!

  67. Jayne Says:

    I appreciate the care you took coming to a decision to take down your trees, and to save the bees and beetles is wonderful!!!

  68. Thank you! They are all part of my new position as charge over the plantation. Not just the history and the house, but all of it.

  69. tchistorygal Says:

    This was a very interesting story on many levels, the history as well as the experience. Thanks so much for sharing.

  70. Thank you!

  71. becky6259 Says:

    You did such a good job describing your eventful day and took such a wonderful set of pictures that I almost felt as if I had been there! Shedding tears over the loss of your trees is so understandable, and I really feel for you — I hope the bees are able to successfully move their queen to the new hive!

  72. Thank you! Yes, we got word yesterday the bees moved to the new hive!

  73. Reblogged this on The Critical Historian.

  74. Thank you so much for sharing our blog with your readers! It really does mean a lot to us!

  75. Reblogged this on Practically Historical.

  76. hermitsdoor Says:

    Living in the woods and heating with wood, I’ve taken down large and small trees to protect our cabin, provide more lights and growth to other trees, and eliminate hollow trees. The latter can be very dangerous when they come down, whether a planned cut or in a storm. Plant some new trees for people to enjoy well beyond our lifetimes. I have counted rings back at least 150 years here in the mountains.

  77. That is what we had to consider when taking this one down. But we have a surprise for everyone soon! I hope to post it in a blog after Saturday!