The Life And Death Of The Penn State Elms
Penn State planted its first American Elm trees in the late 1890s. As they grew, those trees became a staple of Penn State. They served as a quiet study spot, shade, and provided a majestic view for all students who passed by them.
In 1996, a thunderstorm rolled through State College, destroying many things in its wake. Two elms fell victim to the storm’s power. The trees were aged at more than 100 years old, and they were forced to be removed after the storm. A winter storm later that same year destroyed at least ten more trees. Millions of dollars were used to make up for the damage caused to the landscape around campus. The moment stuck with the class as it decided to create the Historic Tree Endowment as its class gift to the university, adding the first $100,000 to it. The contribution still stands, and almost half of the annual income is used for maintenance, upkeep, and removal of trees. The bench by the library mall stands as a physical reminder of the class’ contribution.
Eleven years later, Penn State once again found the need to protect its dear elm trees. This time, it was from themselves as the trees fell victim to Dutch Elm Disease and elm yellows. Dutch Elm Disease has threatened trees for more than 50 years, as the fungal disease is spread by the elm bark beetle, and the trees have still not evolved to combat the illness. Elm yellows is an infection in the tree’s root cells and inner bark, depriving the tree of nutrients. This bacteria infection is spread by the whitebanded elm leafhopper, and has no cure.
In 2011, Penn State reported the loss of nearly 100 elm trees since 2007. This was especially unsettling as there were only 300 to begin with.
“It is very difficult to lose these trees,” Jeff Dice, supervisor of grounds and maintenance, said at the time. “These elms have meant so much to the campus and to the memories of so many people who have come through here. We have fought hard to preserve them. We will continue that work, while also planting new trees to make the same kind of visual impact in the future that the elms did for so long.”
One year later, one of the most famous elm trees on campus also fell victim to the elm yellows disease: none other than the historic Old Main elm. The elm was originally planted in 1933 as a pair to stand on each side of Old Main. Now only the one remains. Below is the design plan, the elm at its prime, and Old Main lawn after removal.
(Images from L-R: Trees of Penn State, Patrick Mansell, Penn State Live)
“These trees have witnessed a lot of Penn State history,” Penn State historian Michael Bezilla stated. “They have attended every kind of event on Old Main lawn — student protests, candlelight vigils, public addresses by President George H.W. Bush and then-future President Barack Obama, Gentle Thursday, celebrations of the arts — the list is really endless. Eight Penn State presidents, looking out from their corner office on Old Main’s second floor, have seen up close how that southwest elm tree has matured and flourished.”
When removed, those elms are replaced with a different species of tree that the university has stated will grow to the height and spread of the elm trees. Financial assistance for replacement was given by the Class of 1996’s gift. “The forethought and generosity of those seniors is now helping us through an extremely difficult time,” Rice explained.
However, a Penn State elm never really dies. It lives on thanks to a partnership between the Penn State Alumni Association and the Office of the Physical Plant.
In 2008, the University came to an agreement to preserve the wood from the fallen elms. The nearly 130-year old-wood is transformed into a special keepsake for Penn Staters everywhere.
“One of the things we wanted to do was to find a way of preserving some of the wood in ways that our alumni would appreciate,” said Roger Williams, executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association.
The groups worked together to create the Penn State Elms Collection. A portion of all proceeds go to the continued effort of preserving the last standing Penn State elms with help of the Class of 1996’s gift.
At the start of the partnership, diploma and picture frames were the main objects of sale, but as the years passed the Penn State Elm Collection moved on to bigger and more unique ideas.
(Image: Penn State Elm Collection)
For advancement, the organization partnered up with many Pennsylvania businesses, like Spectra Wood of State College and Lewis Lumber Products of Picture Rocks. A key part of the collection is that almost every part of the elms are made in Pennsylvania.
With more and more businesses agreeing to help the cause, the frames moved on to become bookcases, rocking chairs, tables, and desks.
In a recent interview with the Altoona Mirror, Brooke Wellar, assistant director of merchandise sales for Penn State Alumni Association, stated that almost 1,800 items have been sold since the collections inception. The most popular of those items is the Elms Etching, which you can see an example of below. The piece costs $125 and, like all collection pieces, comes with a certificate of authentication.
(Image: The Penn State Elms Collection)
Simply said, the items are not cheap. The collection’s FAQ page states that while the items are not limited edition nor is there a time limit of purchase, the pieces’ availability will only be offered until elm wood is no longer available.
The least expensive item I could find in the PSU Alumni Store was a $65 keepsake box, the most expensive being a $2,200 rocking chair.
The elm trees have been a staple of Penn State for several generations, and no one knows how much longer we’ll be able to admire them. But thankfully, like all things Penn State, they never truly die. With a little help, they adapt and transform to prevail and live on through any circumstance.