On the morning of July 3, 1775, at Cambridge Commons in Massachusetts, George Washington formally assumed command of the Continental Army. Towering over the ceremony was a giant elm tree, forever after identified as the “Washington Elm.” The tree was nearly 100 feet in height with a trunk circumference of 18 feet and a spread of branches of over 90 feet. For almost 150 years after the ceremony, the Washington Elm supplied shade to those who visited the commons. Then, on October 26, 1923, old age and the ravages of the leopard moth and elm-leaf beetle so weakened the tree that it fell to the ground. At the time, the Cambridge Parks Department examined the tree rings and determined the tree was approximately 220 years old. The Washington Elm would have been about 70 years old in 1775.
The Washington Elm lived on, however, because a noted horticulturist, Jackson Dawson, grafted a branch of the old and dying tree and saved it for posterity. This original graft was nurtured by T.D. Hatfield and planted on the grounds of the public library in Wellesley, Massachusetts. In 1925, William Judd for the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts grafted four scions from the Wellesley Elm, two of which were given to the Kelsey-Highlands Arboretum in Highlands, New Jersey. Kelsey-Highlands grafted and raised one hundred descendants from the original Washington Elm and distributed them across the country.
One of the elms from Kelsey-Highlands made its way to Bratenahl and was planted on the front lawn of the Bratenahl School at 10300 Brighton Road on the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth, February 22, 1932. The tree was donated to the Village by Charles F. Irish, a noted Bratenahl arborist and nationally-recognized authority on the care of shade trees. The tree came with a certificate of authenticity dated November 3, 1931, and was identified as “Elm No. 65, a direct descendent of the Washington Elm that stood on Cambridge Common, the tree under which General George Washington took command of the first American Army.” Irish planned the gift as a memorial to George Washington.
On April 26, 1968, a plaque was placed on the tree, memorializing its special history. Unfortunately, like many similar trees, Bratenahl’s Washington Elm could not survive the same infestation of elm beetles that claimed its ancestor. Bratenahl’s Washington Elm was eventually cut down.
Although gone, a slab from the tree remains and is on display outside the Bratenahl Historical Society at 10300 Brighton Road, along with the original certificate verifying the authenticity of the tree slab as part of the history of the Washington Elm.