by Hank Nuwer

A lone elm defies the Dutch elm blight


Once upon a time, every hamlet in the American Midwest had an Elm Street.
But around 1930, a blight came overseas from its origins in the Netherlands.
Similar invasions of shade trees also destroyed that king of the forest, the American chestnut tree, and now, the ash tree, killing off the best lumber for Louisville Slugger bats.
As a high school boy growing up in western New York state, I observed crews of men bearing chainsaws to cut down an estimated 10,000 trees infected by Dutch Elm disease. My father dug up a blue spruce on our family farm to replace the elm.
The invasive fungal pathogen Ophiostoma novo-ulmi caused the infestation, and feeding bark beetles spread the killer Dutch elm disease. An elm’s spreading roots attached its roots to the roots of other elm trees underground. Sap transfusions passed the disease on to the next elm and next.
If you were born after 1972, you may have never seen an elm. But now in Randolph County you can see one in the McVey Memorial Forest.
A lone elm exists in an Indiana forest preserve near the site of the one-time small town of Steubenville. To get there, drive through Ridgeville and head south a short distance on Indiana 1. Drive to the tiny parking lot on county road 700 North.
The nearly 300-acre Randolph County preserve was the 1968 gift to future generations of a former family farm bequeathed by the late Edna, Lewis and Charles McVey. My wife and I used to regularly come to the preserve for Sunday walks, passing the elm and hiking the easy trail to the Mississinewa River.
We hiked to the tree at a slow pace from lot to tree in 20 minutes. An informational placard identifies the tree just off the path. In late spring through fall, you’ll note the elm’s spongy bark and double serrated edges on its leaves.
The narrow path is flanked by underbrush and forest trees last harvested in 1951 (according to another sign). Likely this elm’s isolation from any root network of its own kind helps it survive disease-free.
While the elm is not so tall, trees of other species are of majestic height and impressive girth. You’ll find placards identifying shagbark hickory trees, a magnificent Chinquapin oak, hackberry trees and more species. A trail spur leading away from the main path was closed to us, but a placard noted that nearby on a small hill is a large basswood in which wild bees live and work. (Medieval bee raisers raised wild bees in the boughs of giant trees often visited by bears with a sweet tooth.)
We observed several types of birds. We listened to the whack-whack-whack of at least two pileated woodpeckers. Your binoculars might catch sight of hairy woodpeckers, mourning doves, nuthatches and sparrows.
This Randolph County destination reminded me of my visit with Gosia to the Bialowieza Forest National Park straddling eastern Poland and western Belarus. That preserve is more than 1,000 years old and is Europe’s last outgrowth of primeval forest. (Wandering into dangerous Belarus territory is verboten, of course.) Forest Pathology Journal notes that European researchers seek to regenerate elms in the Bialowieza preserve.
One fun fact about elms is that rebellious colonial patriots in Boston used to meet to strategize against the British on the grounds of an elm they called the Liberty Tree. Loyalists defied the patriots by cutting down the symbolic tree in 1775.
For more information and a map, consult the McVey Memorial Forest Trust web site at
Hank Nuwer, a former Randolph County resident, is writing full-time as he completes a biography of Kurt Vonnegut in Fairbanks, Alaska. He has also taught journalism during his career, including for Ball State University and Franklin College in Indiana