Frank and Herbie – A Little Love Story

by J-Stacknik

Frank Knight was proud to tell Yarmouth's school children Herbie's story.

For five decades Frank Knight protected Herbie from disease and from a life of becoming someone’s furniture. Herbie, as Frank affectionately nicknamed him, was a 217 year old elm tree. Frank, who graduated with a degree in forestry, was a pulpwood and timber dealer, who in 1956, volunteered to be the Town of Yarmouth, Maine’s tree warden. As tree warden it was Frank’s job to protect all of the trees in the town. A hard task when you consider that when Frank took the position the towns’ trees were being stricken by Dutch elm disease.

Instead of trying to save all of the trees in Yarmouth Frank focused on a huge elm with a leafy canopy that could be seen from miles away. When Herbie was eventually hit with Dutch elm Frank could not bear to cut it down. Instead he instructed workers to cut off diseased limbs and with the help of pesticides and fungicides he kept Herbie alive through 14 rounds of the disease. His efforts were rewarded every time he looked into the sky and could see the majestic elm looking down on the town.

Over the years the tree and its care taker became local legend. Schoolchildren learned about the champion elm and about Frank’s efforts to keep it alive. People came from all over the world to have their picture taken with the tree. Jan Ames Santerre, urban forestry program coordinator for the Maine Forest Service, recalls how Frank’s eyes would sparkle when he took her to meet Herbie. “He looked up and said, ‘Isn’t he beautiful?’ You could see how much joy that tree brought and how much he had invested in it,” she said.

As time went by it became harder and harder to keep Herbie from succumbing to the disease. So it was in 2010 as Frank turned 101 that Herbie, reaching a height of 110 feet, eventually surrendered to Dutch elm and had to be cut down. Frank took it in stride and said “His time has come, and mine is about due, too.” When the tree was cut down in January 2010 it hit the ground with an earth shaking thud as dozens of residents watched.

In death, the tree was given new life by 50 artisans, most from Maine, who used the wood to make a variety of items, including vases, bowls, bracelets and a stunning electric guitar in what became known as The Herby Project. An auction was held and proceeds from the sale of the various items would fund Yarmouth’s first Tree Trust to plant new street trees in Yarmouth. Unbeknownst to Frank, some of the wood was set aside to create a casket. A simple casket with wooden railings was constructed at the request of Frank’s family. On Monday May 14th, 2012 Frank died at the age of 103. And as a tribute to the love that Frank had for Herbie he was buried in that casket.

“To have them together like that is a wonderful thing. I feel like Frank took good care of Herbie. Now Herbie will take good care of Frank,” said Deb Hopkins, a close friend who succeeded Frank as the town’s tree warden. As Santerre says she understands why people were smitten by the story of Frank and Herbie. “It wasn’t just the tree. It wasn’t just Frank. It’s almost like a little love story,” she said. “He saw that tree and he knew he wanted to save it.”

Read more:

Frank Knight Buried In Casket Made From Elm Tree He Protected

Town of Yarmouth, Maine

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