Political Poplars?

I suspect that most of my colleagues who teach American history dislike Thomas Jefferson. I don’t really get into it with them; I prefer to play naive and impressionistic when it comes to American history (because I am), but I have heard and seen disparaging words and glances on more than one occasion. Their opinion was shared by Salem’s Federalists over two centuries ago, who cast Jefferson as a licentious Jacobin even before the disastrous Embargo Act of 1807. But there was one Jeffersonian “policy” that was popular in Salem, at least for a while: the planting of (Lombardy) Poplar trees on the Common and along several streets. Jefferson loved these stately trees, and had them planted not only at Monticello but also in Washington, along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. His poplar advocacy spread north, and in one of my favorite Salem paintings (actually it’s everyone’s favorite Salem painting), George Ropes’ Salem Common on Training Day, the newly-planted poplars are very prominent. Apparently they were also planted along the Newburyport “turnpike”, now Highland Avenue, and a few other new streets.

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Poplars Washington

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Poplars lining Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., early nineteenth century, Library of Congress; Poplars in Rufus Porter’s “Boston Harbor” wall mural from the Prescott Tavern in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; George Ropes, Jr., Salem Common on Training Day, 1808, Peabody Essex Museum. 

As attractive as they were (or as Ropes made them), the Common poplars would soon be gone, replaced by maples and elms and more pedestrian trees. Was their disappearance due to nature (the “Great September Gale” of 1815 or their unsuitability to Salem’s climate and/or soil) or politics? I ask this question because of a provocative little passage in one of Sidney Perley’s early articles in the Essex Antiquarian (1911): Political feeling was so strong in the old Jeffersonian days that these poplars were condemned by the Federalists on account of Jefferson having been instrumental in producing them. Some of the Republicans planted these trees in front of their residences to show their allegiance to Jeffersonian principles, and the enraged Federalists were guilty of injuring and destroying them. This was true in Salem in 1801 in several instances, the mischief being of course done under cover of darkness. Captain Samuel Very, who lived at Buffum’s Corner, offered a reward of twenty dollars for the conviction of the person or persons who injured the trees before his house. Very interesting! It sounds like poplars were conspicuous targets, and the grove on the Common must have been offensive to Salem’s Federalists: did they mount an attack? To answer this question, I turned to one of Perley’s contemporaries and the authority on horticultural Salem a century ago, John Robinson, who wrote a great little book on Salem’s trees titled Our trees : a popular account of the trees in the streets and gardens of Salem, and of the native trees of Essex County, Massachusetts : with the location of trees, and historical and botanical notes (1891). A man of science, Robinson discounts political explanations for the disappearance of Salem’s poplars in favor of botanical ones: The stiff Lombardy Poplar (Populus dilatata) once grown everywhere, is now but rarely seen except in a state of decay. Our Common was originally planted with these trees in 1802 from nurseries on the northern side, in the vicinity of Winter Street. But, fifteen years later, the trees were found to be of little value for ornament and they were replaced by elms. There are wrecks of Lombardy poplars on Loring Avenue, beyond the Marblehead branch railroad crossing, near the Willows, and on the Newburyport turnpike in various places……….it turns out that Lombardy Poplars just didn’t “take” in Salem’s soil. There are certainly no Poplar “wrecks” on the Common today, but I think I found a few relics in the Howard Street cemetery, still standing guard.

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Apparently NOT a poplar, but an upright English oak!


10 responses to “Political Poplars?

  • Carsten Johnson

    Poplars bring beetles and other pests. Jefferson’s quick fix for L’Enfant’s urban plan. Or did Federalists keep up on their horticulture ?

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  • Pamela

    Horticultural note –

    Lombardy poplars were so wildly popular nurseries could not keep up with the demand, from Vermont to Philadephia, where they were first grown in the US by Alexander Hamilton.

    In Woodstock VT, Lombardy poplars recently planted round the town common were seized at night by dissenters and thrown into the Ottauquechee River.

    But aside from politically motivated killings, the poplars declined because the wood was brittle, they were particularly prone to a fungus forming canker, and, as a member of the willow family, wreaked havoc with sewer and water pipes. Cities eventually banned them.

    Close call on the tree in Howard cemetery….which is an upright English oak, (Quercus robur fastigiata) and you can see examples also in Greenlawn. An astonishing group of these oaks run along the back of the property line of the gas station across the street from Cabot Cinema in Beverly. Very popular, like the Lombardy, due to their upright and narrow habit, but not nearly as fast growing. Good for cemeteries.

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  • Cecilia Mary Gunther

    I have been an observer of American politics for 10 years now (I have a green card so I cannot vote which means I really do observe) and after some of the shenanigans I have seen I fully believe that someone would kill a tree (or a row of them ) because they did not like the man who had ordered it planted. Saying it was going rotton anyway. Amazing that people might have always behaved like this. However some trees do not last as long as others this is true. Great essay. Thank you.. c

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  • helenbreen01

    Hi Donna.

    Another great piece.

    “I suspect that most of my colleagues who teach American history dislike Thomas Jefferson. I don’t really get into it with them. … Their opinion was shared by Salem’s Federalists over two centuries ago, who cast Jefferson as a licentious Jacobin even before the disastrous Embargo Act of 1807.”

    Not sure about the trees, but I just finished ALEXANDER HAMILTON by Ron Chernow on which the sensational Broadway show is based. Wow, does that book delineate the differences between Hamilton and Jefferson, the latter being depicted as not unhappy with the outcome of the famous duel. Jefferson remains one of the most maligned and beloved figures among the Founding Fathers.

    I enjoy how you find these historical tidbits which support the larger political drama…

    Like

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