- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 1999

The enticement of owning history for as little as 50 cents a chunk has created a cottage industry around a 400-year-old felled tree.
When crews chopped down the nation’s last Liberty Tree on the campus of St. John’s College in Annapolis Oct. 25, the school became the rightful owner of all branches, bark and leaves.
But entrepreneurs managed to grab literally tons of debris. One man followed a truckload of wood to the landfill. Others simply took pictures, to be sold later for profit.
Images and pieces of the 96-foot tulip poplar have surfaced for sale on the Internet in the form of Christmas ornaments, postcards, even entire branches. An auction of salvaged pieces attracted bids of $65 last week.
St. John’s administrators, who decided that only a small percentage of the wood was of any quality, are fielding requests from locals, collectors and artists who want to sculpt the remnants.
“We preserved as much of the wood as we thought was usable,” said St. John’s College spokeswoman Barbara Goyette.
She said that portions of the tree, including the entire decayed 50-foot trunk, were given to the landscaping contractor, Virginia-based Care of Trees. Other parts were given to college officials, some of whom are considering creating Liberty Tree paperweights for alumni, students and staff.
“It’s too bad that it’s being reduced to such commercialism,” said Suzanne Weissinger, 58, who had lived across the street from the mammoth tree for four years.
She admitted, however, that her husband framed some leaves from the Liberty Tree to give to their grandchildren.
The Annapolis poplar was the last of 13 Liberty Trees under which colonists gathered to plan the revolution against the British. One tree was planted in each colony.
After the Sons of Liberty met under an elm in 1765 in Boston to denounce the Stamp Act, such meeting trees throughout the Colonies became emblems of independence.
Tree experts decided it was best to cut the tree down after Hurricane Floyd left a 15-foot crack in its gnarled, 102-inch-diameter trunk, rendering it a hazard to all within reach of its branches.
“I believe God enabled us to get that tree back,” said Mark Mehnert, 30, an Annapolis landscaper. “It’s like having a piece of history in your hands.”
Mr. Mehnert salvaged several hundred pounds of the Liberty Tree from a landfill and last Friday sold and auctioned everything from 50-cent chips to 300-pound slabs.
He and an investor have spent “tens of thousands of dollars” in salvaging and storing the tree, Mr. Mehnert said, and haven’t made any money in the endeavor. Any profit, he said, will be donated to Christian charities.
Friday’s auction at the Knights of Columbus Columbian Center in Severna Park, Md., garnered about $1,680, Mr. Mehnert said. He added that he had spent about $4,500 in renting the hall, hiring an auctioneer and advertising the event.
He is continuing to sell parts of the tree in various sizes, complete with certificates of authenticity, over his Web site. It is located at www.thelastone.org.
Other entrepreneurs have posted offers on Ebay, an Internet auction site.
Charles Brown, 58, a woodworker from Arlington, attended the auction looking for pieces of the Liberty Tree to craft his desk essentials “pens, pencils, letter openers, different things.”
“I’ll take a truckload if I can,” he said, adding that pens made from the Liberty Tree could sell for as much as $200 each.
Mr. Mehnert offered each buyer a money-back guarantee, noting that the University of Maryland took 2,000 DNA samples of the Liberty Tree. Suspicious buyers can check their mementos against those samples, he said.
The Maryland Commission for Celebration 2000, with a biotechnology research team from the university, retrieved genetic information from the tree and plans to give duplicates to governors of each of the original colonies for planting. The other 49 states subsequently will receive seedlings.
“I understand I can go to [the university] and have it tested,” said Jane Kaiser, 40, a Severna Park homemaker who bought three pieces of the tree as Christmas gifts for her children. “Because it means so much to me, I probably will do that.”
Pieces of the tree that end up on the World Wide Web may be harder to verify.
One Ebay ad touted a 2-foot branch from the Liberty Tree, with bidding starting at $10.
Kevin Pursglove, an Ebay spokesman, said interested buyers can e-mail sellers with requests for documentation. Buyers also can use an escrow service, if they choose to look over an item before their check is cashed.
“If people want to bid on these items that have historical significance … [they] ought to exercise some caution,” Mr. Pursglove said.
Historical artifacts often appear among the 3.4 million items offered on Ebay. Mr. Pursglove recalled a document signed by some of the founding fathers and a copy of a Life magazine autographed by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy.

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