Residents of South Berkshire have always had an affinity for trees. Well-known poet Joyce Kilmer (“I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree”) visited Great Barrington in his youth. His mother summered in Egremont and lived on Manville Street in Great Barrington, practically next door to an ancient beech tree to be discussed later.
Mohican Native Americans valued trees for shelter, warmth and as a food source. Early white settlers were taught how to harvest maple syrup by the Housatonic Indians. In the 18th and 19th centuries, forests were harvested for fencing and fuel, and supplied vast amounts of charcoal to feed local iron blast furnaces.
Yet even as the forests were clear-cut, trees became a symbol of beauty and strength in the Berkshires. By the mid-1800s, pine and elm trees were planted in downtown Sheffield and Stockbridge to help beautify each village. A giant elm in Sheffield was held in such high regard that it was incorporated into the town’s official seal.
The beech tree was very important hardwood here, and the species is capable of living 300 years or more. From the earliest days of Berkshire settlement, the stately beech tree had several important uses. Beech wood served as excellent firewood, easily split and burned for many hours. Beech was also used in the making of beer, an important commodity for early Dutch, German and English settlers. It was also slow-burned to smoke and preserve ham, sausage and cheese. Beech sometimes served as an economical alternative to walnut in the making of rifles. Beech nuts proved to be edible and nutritious, and were also pressed to make cooking oil. In the springtime, the leaves were enjoyed as a salad vegetable. Since paper was scarce for early colonists, Dutch and German settlers sometimes used thin beechwood tablets as writing materials. A review of language evolution shows that the word “beech” was similar in meaning to “book.” In modern Dutch, for example, the word for “book” is boek, with beuk meaning “beech tree.”
Impressive beech trees also served as important boundary markers referenced in early local deeds, records and surveys. Coonrod Burghardt (early spelling Coenreat Borghghardt) was an early local settler of Dutch, Danish and German ancestry. He was born about 1677, probably near Kinderhook, New York. As a successful fur trader and land speculator, he learned how to communicate with his Native American neighbors in what is now Columbia County, New York, and Berkshire County, Massachusetts. In the 1720s, Burghardt was hired by the Settling Committee to purchase the so-called Housatonic township lands from the Indians. He became one of the most prosperous settlers in the area with numerous land-holdings. His home was located near the corner of present-day Silver Street and Route 7 in Great Barrington – roughly the property encompassing present-day Kleinwald Art and Antiques, Ward’s Nursery and Garden Center, several homes, and Beech Tree Commons apartments. In the 18th century, Maple Avenue did not exist so Silver Street was a major road – part of the County Road (Route 23) heading towards Egremont.
It is believed by some local historians that Coonrod Burghardt marked his property boundaries with copper beech trees. Until last week, two of these large beech trees –or their descendants – survived, but barely. According to noted historian James Parrish, his paternal ancestors lived in a Silver Street house built by a Burghardt about 1743. “The large beech tree had always been in the front yard,” he said. That house had fallen into disrepair when it was torn down in the 1960s to build the Beech Tree Commons apartments, named after the same magnificent beech tree.
Although the tree survived for another 50 years, it eventually succumbed to the deadly Phytophthora Canker fungi and insect attacks. It was taken down last week as shown in the accompanying photographs. The website for Copper Beech Commons described the tree as the “second-oldest” in town. While that is unlikely, it was definitely ancient. And if it actually was one of Coonrod Burghardt’s plantings, it would have been about 275 years old. The base of the tree measured 7 feet in diameter and nearly 21 feet in circumference.
Around the corner, Paul Kleinwald noticed that an aging beech tree standing alongside his antiques shop was also ailing. Kleinwald thinks his tree may be younger than its neighbor on Silver Street – but just as important – and he acted quickly, hiring tree expert Winthrop Barrett to diagnose and treat the tree. Thankfully it is doing well today, but the treatment price was “not inexpensive,” Kleinwald said.
It is often said that “money doesn’t grow on trees,” but Kleinwald’s generosity took root and allowed one descendant of Coonrod Burghardt’s family tree to continue reaching for the sky.