The Presidents' Tree
Dorothy Cleaveland Salisbury
Read at the dedication of the Presidents' Tree, April 26, 1948
Usually when a tree is dedicated, it is a sapling set out for a special purpose to honor or memorialize some person or event; but today we are dedicating a tree which is itself already a memorial and a living link between the time of the Civil War and today.
Eighty-three years ago, in 1865, this was a already a mature tree, with its broad, silver-grey trunk untouched by any man. For years it had been growing in the woodland near the Sligo, unseen except by the birds and squirrels and other wood-folk. But as the years passed, men began to penetrate these forest solitudes. One of the first was, probably, Francis Preston Blair of Silver Spring who set his slaves to work making a bridal path for his wife down along the Sligo, where now the parkway runs.
During the anxious and exciting days when the fate of the National Capital hung in the balance, soldiers manned the breastworks of the encircling ring of forts and batteries, including Fort Stevens on the Seventh Avenue Pike, and were scattered all through this section to halt any approach of enemy soldiers. Some were probably bivouacked in the woods and along the stream not far from the current corner of Maple Avenue and Sligo Creek Parkway. Finally, in April 1865, there came the end of the conflict with Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomatox Courthouse, followed so quickly by the tragic death of the war president.
In the August following, a young man living on a nearby farm was attracted by the beech standing close by the bridle path. His fingers were skillful in lettering with a knife, and the smooth bole of the tree enticed him. His first thought was to carve the name of the commander who had brought the final victory to the Union cause. So, as high as he could comfortably reach, he inscribed, "Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant."
Then a more ambitious plan leaped into his brain. He would carve the names of all the Presidents of the United States as a memorial to his country, so recently saved from disunion. Painstakingly he began in firm, even letters:
|Published by permission of Historic Takoma, Inc. 2003|
GEORGE WASHINGTON ANDREW JACKSON MILLARD FILLMORE JOHN ADAMS MARTIN VAN BUREN FRANKLIN PIERCE THOMAS JEFFERSON WILLIAM H. HARRISON JAMES BUCHANAN JAMES MADISON JOHN TYLER ABRAHAM LINCOLN JAMES MONROE JAMES K. POLK A. JOHNSON JOHN Q. ADAMS ZACHARY TAYLOR
Yet still the tree offered space for carving. A quarter round the trunk from the roster of presidents and near the ground was a broad, smooth spot. "Just the place for a word-square," he thought. The making of these word-squares, simple and elaborate, was a popular pastime of the period. Lovers played so with the names of their sweethearts, puzzle makers used words of all kinds. But Lincoln, the martyr president, was the hero of the young carver and he was loath to leave his own name. So he continued his work, carving the word-square - ABRAHAM LINCOLN. The name ABRAHAM, from the center up and down and left and right, makes a cross. Around the edges, from the center of each side to the corners, runs the name LINCOLN. From the center letter, A, to the Ns in the four corners, one may go left or right and up or down, to read the complete name, ABRAHAM LINCOLN. One hundred ninety-five letters, even in size and spacing, made the word-square.
N L O C N I L M L I N C O L N L O C N I L M A M L I N C O L O C N I L M A H A M L I N C O C N I L M A H A H A M L I N C N I L M A H A R A H A M L I N I L M A H A R B R A H A M L I L M A H A R B A B R A H A M L I L M A H A R B R A H A M L I N I L M A H A R A H A M L I N C N I L M A H A H A M L I N C O C N I L M A H A M L I N C O L O C N I L M A M L I N C O L N L O C N I L M L I N C O L N
Finally he signed and dated his work. Above the point where the trunk of the tree splits into three parts, he carved on the left-hand trunk in the same careful lettering, "Samuel M'C. Fenton August 5, 1865." How long the carver took at his task we can only guess. There are more than 450 carefully formed characters in all the names and the square.
And who was this young wood carver? Samuel M'Closky Fenton was born on the family farm near Bordentown, New Jersey, in 1836, the youngest son of Samuel and Ann (Wilson) Fenton. He was named for his father and then given the middle name, M'Closky, for an Episcopal bishop for whom his mother had great admiration. There had always been a Samuel in the family since before the Revolution, and there is still. A nephew and a grand-nephew Samuel both reside today in the District of Columbia.
About 1860 the father, Samuel, was induced by his son-in-law, John Myers (husband of the oldest daughter, Martha) to sell out in New Jersey and move to Virginia. John, according to the descendants, was always dabbling in real estate. Father Fenton bought a farm just west of Centerville, Virginia. But the family has not been there a year when the war-clouds which had been gathering over the country, broke with the firing on Fort Sumter in April, 1861.
Uneasy though they probably felt, the Fentons stayed on, planting their crops and hoping that there would be no real warfare, at least not in Virginia. Vain hope. In July a Union army, coming out of ... lost text ... me house on the Seventh Street Pike [now Georgia Avenue] a little north of Florida Avenue, then on the outskirts of the city. As soon as arrangements could be completed, they moved out onto the farm in the Kilmarnock tract of Montgomery County, Maryland, which was owned by John Myers. The little old log cabin on the place was small and mean in comparison with the fine brick house on the Virginia farm or the old home back in New Jersey.
But they made the best of it, enlarging the log house till it became at last a rambling seven-room building, five rooms on the ground and two above, built of plank around the core of the log cabin. It stood on a knoll at what is now 808 Greenwood Avenue. Some of the old trees which shaded it are still standing.
The farm itself extended from the line of Flower Avenue to the west side of the Long Branch and from the old Blair Road (now Piney Branch Road at this point) to the Davis property, just north of Maple Avenue.
Of the three sons, the oldest, Robert, enlisted in the First D. C. Cavalry. William, the second son, was already married and with a family. Samuel, the youngest, was his father's right-hand man on the farm. The father, over sixty when he was driven from his land in Virginia, with a delicate wife and two daughters living at home, needed the son with him, and armies in those days, as today, had to be fed.
Yet the disasterous Battle of Bull Run, which he had seen with his own eyes, and the anxiety for his soldier brother as well as for the Maryland home itself, naturally made young Samuel think much of the men who had the safety of the country in their keeping. The experiences and anxieties of the war years had bitten deep into his consciousness. His heroes were the Union generals and the war president. On the log casing of the door from the dining room into the back entry of the old house, Samuel carefully incised a list of the generals of the Union army.
Hence it is not surprising that when he found the smooth-skinned beech, he should make of it a memorial to his country and the critical times through which it had just gone.
In October 1869, the father, about ten years before his death, procured title to the Kilmarnock farm from John Myers, on a swap for the Centerville property. In settling the estate, the young Samuel bought out the farm interests of his mother and the other children. Here he continued to live with his mother and younger sisters, Susan and Ella. Robert, the soldier brother, had come home safely from the war and had married. He was killed in an accident in 1885 and the frail mother did not long survive him.
On November 24, 1883, Benjamin Franklin Gilbert laid out the town of Takoma Park. Soon Samuel Fenton and his sisters had neighbors. There are a few persons still living here [in 1948] who remember them. To them, and to some of the nieces and nephews, Samuel told about the tree he had carved. To at least one young grand-nephew he took pride in pointing it out and in reading the inscriptions to him.
About 1913 Samuel and his sister, Ella, both in their seventies, left Maryland eventually to join relatives in California. There Samuel died in October 1918.
After all, there were not many who knew the secret of the carved tree. As time passed, more and more people passed the spot. The bridle path became a wagon road, and finally a parkway. Maple Avenue was cut through, following an older road. The tree was passed countless times every day, yet few of the passers-by saw more than a beech tree which had been the target of more than the usual number of jackknives. Some of these visitors, knife in hand, added their marks to the tree, but in general avoided the older marking, now silvered with age.
Occasionally someone would look closely enough to read the inscriptions, but few knew or learned how they came there. Apparently none of the latecomers to Takoma Park who noticed the tree, discovered the carver's name, placed as it is, high and a quarter turn around the tree from the list of presidents. So legends grew up about it. Some thought it might have been the work of a soldier when the troops were stationed in the vicinity.
The solving of the riddle of the tree has been as exciting to those doing it as the unwinding of clues in a Perry Mason mystery. With the discovery of the name of the engraver, the trail has led from the tree itself to the Civil War and Census records in the National Archives of the United States; to the land records on file at Rockville; to the Washington telephone directory, where a long shot call to the Samuel Fenton there listed started the uncovering of a dozen Fenton relatives, nieces and nephews of two generations of Samuel M'C. Fenton, the carver; to old residents in the Sligo neighborhood, notably Mr. E. Norman Jackson and Mr. Charles Rife, who knew Samuel intimately and to whom the tree was an old story, heard originally from his own lips. From all these sources the completed story as here given has been compiled. There are a few differences in detail which have still to be reconciled, but there has been no statement of fact without ample backing for it.
Probably the first one to recognize that in this tree Takoma Park has a unique claim to fame and that some community action should be taken to protect and preserve it, was Mrs. Stella Parker Peterson. Soon after the organization of theTakoma Park Historical Society, she brought the knowledge of the Presidents' Tree to the attention of the society. The society acted promptly, enlisting the aid and interest of the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. But then the war [World War II] was still on. Iron and labor could not be spared from the war effort. And even after V-J day, priorities and scarcities still continued. Not till last month [March 1948] was the protecting iron fence erected.
Now, over eighty years since the young patriot, in his enthusiasm first engraved on the trunk of a beech a lesson in American history, the tree is still strong and vigorous, having escaped the hand of the axman and having survived the blights and pests which have taken many of its neighboring beeches. Now that it is assured of special protection to guard it from carelessness and vandalism, we trust that it may stand for many years to come as a unique memento, on the borders of Washington, of the "War Between the States."
The Presidents' Tree in the early 1990s suffered death from old age. It stood, a dead memorial, until a summer thunderstorm blew it down in 1997. By that time the carvings were illegible so the dead trunk was discarded. The iron fence that surrounded the tree survives although the gate was damaged considerably when the tree trunk fell in the storm.