Etchings in Presidents Tree provided a look into history
Aug. 18, 2004
Sean Sands
Staff Writer

Photo courtesy Historic Takoma archives

A 1948 photo of the Presidents Tree at Maple Avenue and Sligo Creek Parkway shows the original historic carvings made by Samuel M'Closky Fenton alongside other carvings one might expect to see on a neighborhood tree.



Near the back entrance to Washington Adventist Hospital is an iron fence with a simple plaque, all that remains from what was once one of Takoma Park's largest historical markers: the Presidents Tree.

In years past, a sturdy American beech stood inside the fence erected to protect the tree that bore the names of 18 of the nation's presidents. The tree, with names carved by a young farmer who moved with his family to the area some 20 years before Benjamin Franklin Gilbert founded the city, stood witness to both a civil war and the transformation of Takoma Park from sleepy woodlands to a thriving suburb.

Although the tree died in the early 1990s and then fell during a thunderstorm in 1997, local historians said the Presidents Tree might represent more now that it's gone than it did when it overlooked Sligo Creek centuries ago.

"It's a very strong connection to the Civil War link in this area, which is something that is very difficult to reclaim," said Sabrina Baron, president of Historic Takoma.

Takoma Park residents officially recognized the tree's historical significance just after World War II. At a ceremony in 1948, city and county leaders dedicated the tree located on a slope overlooking the intersection of Maple Avenue and Sligo Creek Parkway as a "living memorial to the men who 'gave their last full measure of devotion to their country' in the war, 1861-1865," according to a ceremony program from the Historic Takoma archives.

Listed on the program were Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant III and Lt. Col. E. Brooke Lee, then chairman and vice-chairman, respectively, of Park and Planning. Takoma Park Mayor Oliver W. Youngblood gave the welcome, and the Rev. N. S. Ashton of Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church gave the invocation.

But nearly everything that is known about the tree today, including a biographical sketch of the man who carved its trunk, came from Dorothy Cleaveland Salisbury, a member of the Takoma Park Historical Society who searched the U.S. National Archives, census records and even records from Montgomery County's orphans' court. Her search helped her piece together the story of Samuel M'Closky Fenton, a New Jersey native whose family was run out of Centreville, Va., during the First Battle of Bull Run, which played out on the Fenton family farm.

Lifelong Takoma Park resident Dorothy Barnes said that while many people believed a Union soldier camped near Sligo Creek carved the names and a word square using "Abraham Lincoln" on the tree's trunk, Salisbury's research uncovered the truth.

In a dedication speech April 26, 1948, Salisbury retraced the Fenton family's journey from New Jersey to Virginia, then to a small house in Washington, D.C., before finding a new homestead on what was then known as the Kilmarnock tract of Montgomery County. The family's home, originally a log cabin that the Fentons added to over the years, was located where 808 Greenwood Ave. now stands.

Through interviews with Fenton's surviving relatives, including several who lived at 425 Butternut St. NW in Takoma, D.C., Salisbury was able to determine that Samuel Fenton had strong feelings about the Civil War. He was such a supporter of the nation that he even carved the names of Union generals in the log casing of his dining room door in Centreville.

In her detailed history, the original of which is in the Historic Takoma archives, Salisbury said Fenton was moved after he watched the Union defeated at Bull Run.

"Yet the disastrous [sic] Battle of Bull Run, which [Fenton] has seen with his own eyes, and the anxiety for his soldier brother as well as for the Maryland home itself, naturally made young Samuel think much of the men who had the safety of the county in their keeping," Salisbury wrote. "The experiences and anxieties of the war years had bitten deep into his consciousness."

"... Hence it is not surprising that when he found the smooth-skinned beech, he should make of it a memorial to his country and the critical times through which it had just gone."

Although the exact date Fenton carved the Presidents Tree is unknown, he did carve his own name and dated it Aug. 5, 1865.

After the tree, its trunk also marked with carved hearts and initials, fell in 1997, Takoma Park resident Clair Garman, a member of Friends of Sligo Creek, said he heard of conversations about trying to replace it. "That whole hillside is covered by the American beech, and it's likely that those [trees] that are near [the iron fence] are descendants of the original tree."

No one planted another tree within the fence, which now stands as the only remaining link to the historic beech. Even so, Barnes and other residents sometimes tell the tree's story, keeping it alive in the minds of local history buffs and people who are simply curious about the empty fence on the hillside.

"That's what preservation is all about -- preserving those kinds of links to the past," Baron said. "That's what is so important about preserving historic buildings and monuments, or even in this case, a historic tree.

"It was a personal, tangible link to the past, and I think those things are the heart and core of what makes a community a community."

The complete text of Salisbury's Presidents Tree dedication speech is available online at www.fosc.org/presidentstree.htm.