Aug. 30 2018 09:48 AM

Historic Turner Dodge tree will soon come down

The towering copper beech tree that has sheltered Lansing’s historic Turner Dodge mansion for over 100 years will be taken down this fall. No date has been set for the operation.

Take a last look, but Lansing’s parks director, Brett Kaschinske, warned not to get too close. The tree has dropped some serious tonnage in recent years, owing to heart rot in the trunk.

The beech’s wine-red leaves, its elephantine trunk (59 inches in diameter) and expansive, peacock-like spread — wider and taller than the house itself — have sheltered passers-by, wedding guests, concert goers and many other visitors to the Turner Dodge mansion for at least 100 years.

On a windless day in late July, the tree dropped a major limb that weighed nearly a ton. No one was hurt, but it was a wakeup call for the city. An even larger limb fell two years ago. Several years before that, almost half the double-trunked tree came down. What’s left of the rotted second trunk can still be seen, spiking about 20 feet into the air.

Most sources place the life expectancy of beech trees at 150 to 200 years, with some specimens reaching 300 years. If the Turner Dodge tree were in a field or forest, it could possibly go on living for quite a while, dropping heavy branches every so often, with little consequence to humans.

But this tree’s fate is to be hugged, literally, by a rustic circular bench that may be the most inviting sitting spot in the city. Google the Turner Dodge House and you’ll find dozens of photographs of wedding parties standing directly under the recently fallen branch. (In one case, a harpist is parked at Ground Zero.)

About 20 feet of the limb that fell last month was 16 inches thick or thicker. Consulting a forester’s chart, forestry and grounds supervisor Dominic Fucciolo said a 1-foot-long section of a 16-inch diameter beech log weighs 75 pounds.

Add the smaller branches and foliage on the end, and the entire limb was probably close to a harp-crushing one ton.

Fucciolo doesn’t know how old the tree is, but he said it’s at least “approaching the century mark.” It’s not native to Michigan, being a European variety of beech, so it must have been planted.

If the tree is 100 years old, it was probably planted by the Frank Dodge family, the second generation of illustrious Turner Dodge owners. In 1900, Dodge hired Lansing architect Darius Moon to build the stately Georgian Revival mansion that swallowed up the original 1858 house built by his pioneer father-in-law, James Turner.

A copper beech was a perfect grace note for a grand mansion where many famous friends and colleagues, including reformer William Jennings Bryan, came to visit.

Dodge was a prominent Democratic legislator, politician and advocate for labor, a friend of presidents and senators. The copper beech was already a favorite of groundskeepers and gardeners, but it became even more famous after featuring prominently in a 1892 Sherlock Holmes story “The Copper Beeches.”

For about 95 percent of its life, a beech is one of the sturdiest trees around. But as they age, the combination of heavy, dense wood and advanced decay is a recipe for disaster.

“Yes, they are beautiful trees, but it might just be too dangerous,” arborist Alex Ellis said. “Old beeches commonly develop heart rot, which is decay in the trunk.”

Beeches in groups grow upward, but a beech standing alone in a park-like area, like the Turner Dodge tree, spreads its lower branches horizontally.

It makes for inviting climbing, but the weight distribution doesn’t favor the limb or the climber. Two more horizontal branches still extend from the Turner Dodge tree, as if beckoning a wedding party to take its chances.

“Pick up a gallon of milk and extend your arm straight out,” Fucciolo explained. “It would take more strength and tension to hold that gallon of milk outward from your body than if you were to hold it closer to yourself or even lift it straight over your head.”

The circular bench around the tree has long been a topic of debate in the parks department. The bench kept wouldbe initial carvers away from the trunk, but may have constricted the trunk and encouraged the rot.

It will soon be a moot question. Fucciolo said taking down the beech was a hard decision to make.

“We thought about keeping people out of the fall zone by erecting some sort of barrier, but the esthetic, the purpose, the function doesn’t seem like it would be fitting for it,” he said.

“It brings out a lot of emotion,” Kaschinske said. “We don’t put out a press release on a tree, but we did for this tree. That tells you where this tree stands.”

Taking down the tree will be a formidable job, but the openness of the area will make it easier than taking down trees near grave markers in cemeteries or near electrical lines or buildings.

The parks board is already discussing what will go in the tree’s place.

Kaschinske said he wants to try to rear a seedling from the old tree, but it’s a tricky proposition.

“It’s not like starting a silver maple,” Kaschinske said.

Fucciolo said the seed crop needs to be at a constant temperature of 40-41 degrees for about 90 days to germinate.

“It would be much easier to put in another copper beech,” Kaschinskie said. “But we’re going to try.”