- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

A 215-year-old white ash tree planted by George Washington and damaged by Hurricane Isabel is now a collection of art pieces, thanks to a group of area hobbyists.

At Mount Vernon yesterday, members of the Capital Area Woodturners presented 35 handcrafted bowls, vases and other objects fashioned from the tree to Washington’s estate. The storm in September demolished one of the enormous tree’s two main branches, leaving 60 to 70 feet of wood on the ground.

“It was really an honor to turn a piece of wood like this,” said club President Thomas Boley, 56, who made two bowls.

“I was a little nervous about it,” added Mr. Boley, a semiretired Navy intelligence special agent from Springfield. “Each piece of wood from this tree is a piece of history. It was hard to treat it like just another piece of wood.”

At a demonstration held in front of the historic tree, club members Donald Riggs and C.A. Savoy took turns shaping a small piece of the white ash wood.

“It feels great to do this work,” said Mr. Savoy, 67, from Alexandria. “I love it.”

Passing tourists frequently stopped to watch the men at work.

“I think it’s really neat,” said Daniel R. Kelly of Wichita, Kan. “I’m not a woodworker, so this is fascinating.”

Mr. Kelly and his family were in the area for the weekend dedication of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall.

Mr. Riggs, 70, a Vietnam veteran and retiree who lives in Alexandria, said the wood from the tree was not as dry as the samples typically used by woodworkers.

“Wood that hasn’t been properly cured dries imperfectly,” he said. “But some people like the imperfections. It makes each piece more unique.”

Mr. Riggs’ bowl was more perfectly rounded than the others because he soaked his piece of wood in soap suds to help it cure.

Other items fashioned by the hobbyists included cups, plates, ceiling-fan pull cords and artistic representations such as a wooden Liberty Bell.

James C. Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon, said the historic estate will keep on display one item titled “Independence” — an artistic representation of the nation’s struggle for independence — and give away the other pieces to longtime donors.

“As far as I know, this was unprecedented,” he said. “Hopefully, it will be a very rare occasion. But I told the guys: Sooner or later, another hurricane might come. We’ll see what happens.”

When asked why Mount Vernon authorized the project, Mr. Rees said the white ash tree is more than just a piece of wood.

“These trees witnessed history,” he said. “They are our last living link to George Washington.”

There are 13 trees still standing on the estate that were planted by the first president. Most, including the damaged 140-foot-tall white ash, were planted in 1785.

In an attempt to make the landscaping resemble Washington’s era, Mount Vernon is involved in an effort to clone the trees.

“The problem is there’s not much light and the cloned trees are vulnerable to deer antlers,” Mr. Rees said. “It will be a very slow process.”

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