Man’s dedication to elm made him a local legend

Frank Knight took care of New England’s tallest elm tree for five decades as Yarmouth’s tree warden. (Associated Press)
Frank Knight took care of New England’s tallest elm tree for five decades as Yarmouth’s tree warden. (Associated Press)

PORTLAND, Maine – Frank Knight’s decades-long battle to save New England’s tallest elm served as an inspiring tale of devotion, so it is fitting that he will be laid to rest in a coffin made from the tree he made famous.

Knight, who died Monday at 103, had affectionately referred to the 217-year-old elm nicknamed Herbie as “an old friend.” The massive tree succumbed to Dutch elm disease and was cut down two years ago.

Wood from the tree was made into a casket, a secret that was kept from Knight.

“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 Knight as the town’s tree warden.

Knight was already middle-aged and running a logging business in 1956 when he became the volunteer tree warden in Yarmouth, just as Dutch elm disease was killing trees by the hundreds.

He realized he couldn’t save the town’s elms, so he focused his efforts on one tree, a giant with a canopy that could be seen from miles away.

When Herbie became afflicted, Knight couldn’t bear to cut down the tree so he instructed workers to selectively prune away diseased limbs. Later, pesticides and fungicides were applied. For five decades, Herbie survived 14 rounds of Dutch elm disease, thanks to Knight’s efforts.

Over time, Herbie became a local legend, and so did Knight. Schoolchildren learned about New England’s champion elm and his caretaker. People from all corners of the world had their photos taken with the tree.

Jan Ames Santerre, urban forestry program coordinator for the Maine Forest Service, recalls how Knight’s eyes sparkled 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.

But all good things had to come to an end.

At age 101, Knight was sad but realistic when the 110-foot-tall tree finally met its demise.

“His time has come,” Knight said at the time. “And mine is about due, too.”

When the tree was cut down in January 2010, its trunk hit the ground with an earth-shaking thud as dozens of residents watched.

“It’s been a beautiful tree. I’m sorry to see it go. But nothing is forever,” Knight said. “I thank the good Lord every day that we had him in his glory and beauty for so long.”

In death, the tree was given new life by artisans, who used the wood to make a variety of items, including a stunning electric guitar. Unbeknownst to Knight, some of the wood was set aside to create a casket, Hopkins said.

Chris Becksvoort, a custom furniture maker in New Gloucester, created a simple casket with wooden railings at the request of the Knight family.

While the tree made Knight famous, it was his easygoing personality and caring nature that will be remembered in Yarmouth, friends said.

Santerre understands why people were smitten with the story of Herbie and Frank.

“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.”

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