WEATHERSFIELD, Vt. — With plans to remove the last living maple tree from land once owned by Weathersfield farmer Romaine Tenney, representatives from the Vermont Department of Transportation (V-Trans) held a community meeting to gather ideas for how to salvage the wood for a fitting memorial to Tenney.
The overall response from Weathersfield residents was to let the tree live.
“You’re conducting this meeting to discuss the wood from the tree you plan to cut down,” resident Jeff Slade told the V-Trans members. “We’re here because we want to save it.”
The century-old maple has been a living memorial to Tenney, whose 75-acre family farm once occupied the land that today contains the I-91 Exit 8 Ascutney Park and Ride. Tenney, often described as a bachelor farmer, had lived his entire life on the farm, only leaving periodically to serve in World War II.
When the state ordered Tenney to vacate his land for the construction of I-91, Tenney refused, rejecting multiple offers of compensation. Then, in the early hours of Sept. 12, 1964, facing a sheriff’s order to evict, Tenney cleared his animals and belongings from the barn, barricaded himself inside his farmhouse and set it ablaze, dying in the fire.
Kyle Obenauer, a historical specialist from V-Trans, said the maple tree — which the state left in place as a “symbol and reminder” of Tenney — is dying and needs to be removed.
“A large cavity has formed in the trunk and there is not enough living wood in the structure to support it,” Obenauer said.
The tree’s size and proximity to vehicle spaces in the Park and Ride makes it a safety liability, according to Obenauer. With winter coming, the state department worries that one of the dead limbs might fall and cause injury.
V-Trans approved a project to salvage wood from the tree to work into a memorial, which the state would place close to the site of the tree.
“We can’t save the tree, but we can explore what we want to do to honor Romaine,” Obenauer said.
But many Weathersfield residents challenged the department’s decision to cut it down.
“Many branches on that tree are still living,” said Weathersfield Selectman N. John Arrison. “It’s the last living reminder of Romaine Tenney. It should be allowed to die, rather than be brought down by a chainsaw.”
Several residents agreed, saying that if the state removed the dead limbs regularly the tree would likely continue standing and bearing foliage for many more years.
“I’m asking you to reconsider,” said Selectboard Vice-Chair David Fuller. “That tree’s not dead.”
Some residents recognized that the tree may need to come down, but proposed ideas to keep the tree alive in spirit.
Jack Dugdale, of West Windsor, suggested that V-Trans create an offspring from the tree via a cutting or cultivating a seedling or sapling.
“Granted, it would be a new tree, but a descendent,” Dugdale said.
For the original wood, Dugdale suggested slicing the trunk into disks, with each disk mounting a placard containing Tenney's story. These pieces could then be placed in government buildings, including the state house, to remind elected officials and agencies about the impact of initiatives on people.
“Land or a house becomes a part of you,” Dugdale said. “We need to remind ourselves to never let this happen again.”
Weathersfield resident Cookie Shand proposed preserving the trunk in the ground as a monument. Shand shared documents and illustrations of how communities have preserved ceremonial or historic trees by building a memorial around the tree or trunk.
Resident Betty Brooks supported Shand’s idea, telling the community that they should spend time discussing how to memorialize Tenney and what happened, rather than a tree that’s going to come down regardless.
“It’s life,” Brooks said after the meeting. “We all have to move on. Where would Vermont be without the Interstate.”
In attendance were two of Tenney’s relatives: Dylan Tenney, of Claremont, and Brandon Tenney Sr., of Bellows Falls.
Dylan Tenney said that while he is pleased to see conversation taking place, there may be nothing the state can propose to change its relationship with the family. The state actually promised decades ago that it intended to make a memorial plaque, yet the state never delivered.
“Romaine would have been at this meeting and fighting to preserve the tree at all costs,” Tenney said after the meeting.
The meeting concluded after an hour, without any definitive decisions made for how to use the wood.
Obenauer said that V-Trans plans to remove the tree before winter, though no date has been set. He told the community that they would receive advance notice of that date once determined.
V-Trans Project Manager Jonathan Griffin, who also attended the meeting, said that Obenauer already collected seedlings and saplings from the site of the maple earlier, which the team will use to attempt to create an offspring.