Dutch Elm Disease

Sep 15, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

What would a town look like with its clothes off? We Rock Islanders found out in the 1960s.

As with towns and cities across much of the United States, the American Elm had become the Rock Islander's street tree of choice. Eighty-foot green vases arched over neighborhood streets and lawns, shading front yards and parked cars. Even the wide boulevards had turned into tunnels of green as the elms met overhead.

Moline, Illinois, the "City of Elms," was especially proud. An elm from the front yard of one of its residents, Henry Kuehl, had provided Luther Burbank, the plant wizard, with an important commercial variety: Ulmus Americana Moline.

Then, in the summer of 1959, a few elms in Moline withered and dropped their leaves. Dutch Elm Disease had arrived. Discovered in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1930, the disease had spread across the country town by town. Now, it was our turn. Amid rumors of miracle cures, our elm trees fell one by one, yard by yard. By 1970, streets and houses lay naked.

We were shocked. In the glare of the bright sun, the grandest of the old neighborhoods could no longer hide their rot. Mansions had been carelessly broken up into awkward apartments, their ornamental iron work fallen off, sides covered by cheap asbestos and asphalt, surrounded by weeds and rusted cars.

In the same way that a glance in a mirror some morning begins a diet, a few people began to care. Slowly at first, until it eventually became the thing to do, families bought the old homes, ripped out apartment walls and fake siding. Historic districts with names like Broadway and The Gold Coast began to look like their proud old selves. The obligatory white paint of the 1920s was scraped off and the walls were repainted in their old Victorian colors.

Along the sidewalks of these restored neighborhoods, new trees have been planted: maples, sycamore, and oaks. But it's not the same. The elms were more than ornament. Without their wide green shade gracing our lives, we Rock Islanders will never again be fully dressed.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.