Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Fallen Clermont Trees Get a New Life

At Clermont, it is always sad when the storms bring down historic trees-- trees that would have been looked on by generations of the Livingston family. Our guest blogger, David Bayne, helped find a new use for several felled historic trees. In addition to being a talented furniture maker (and our guest blogger!), David cares for our historic furniture collections as the furnature conservator at Peebles Island State Resource Center.

April 1999 was not a good month for Clermont. A wicked ice storm knocked down many trees at the site and up the Hudson Valley. But I was too busy with my own power losses to think of Clermont until director Bruce Naramore called: “A walnut tree with a big limb has fallen in the garden – do you want it?” This is a call any furnituremaker longs for since a big limb means lots of figured wood from where the branch intersects the trunk. A tree growing in a garden is generally healthy and thick. So of course I asked Bruce if he could tag it for me until I got down there, but professional that he is, he said it was first come, first serve. So how do I haul a log, 3’ at the fat end, home to Washington County?

After some scrambling I was heading south on a delightful spring day with Frank from F&A Towing. I was advised that for this kind of “logging” a winch equipped ramp truck should work well. I got the feeling that Frank was happy to be not hauling another wreck off the highway - instead it was an adventure and an outing!

Although the weight distribution and soft garden were a problem we were able to get two chunks of good looking walnut up the ramp. While leaving, I noticed a respectable cherry blow down between the allĂ©e and the river. The tree was reasonably straight even though it grew on an exposed bluff, so we backed up. It wasn’t all that easy to haul it in, since I had to hold the walnut in place as the bed tilted and Frank choked the cable around the cherry. There are limitations to the logging potential of a wrecker truck.
With everything stacked in my barn yard the next step was getting a portable sawmill to cut it up into usable lumber. The sawyer did a good job and we were all wowed when the swirling wood grain was revealed for the first time. Nobody but God, has ever seen this before! The big surprise was the cherry log which had magnificent figure, but quickly loaded the saw blade with sticky pitch. The build-up was so bad he had to change the blade three times. No wonder the operator became cranky.

These two photos show historic precedents for the table made by David Bayne. The wood from historic trees is finding a new life in furniture based on historic examples.

Finally with the boards stacked in the barn, the race began – to find projects worthy of such pedigreed wood before the worms and bugs ate it up. Fortunately I had some help and Cathy Mackenzie and Leonard Bellanca have stepped forward with some great furniture.

Leonard is a furnituremaker who lives and works in Greenfield Center, Saratoga County, in the house and attached workshop that he designed and built in 2004. He earned a degree in architecture and studied furnituremaking in Philadelphia. He designs and builds custom furniture and woodwork, restores antique furniture, and is a house carpenter with much experience in historic interiors. For the last two years he has been a guest woodworker at the New Hampshire Furniture Masters exhibition and auction. The two end tables were his juried entry for 2008.

While Cathy was a student furniture maker at the North Bennet Street School in Boston she used some of the Clermont wood to make a traditional 18th-century tea table and a side chair based on an 18th-century Virginia example. For her it was important to know that the walnut did not have to travel from half way across the globe to reach her workbench. In most cases, furniture makers are lucky just to know the general location where their wood comes from, much less the exact garden where the lovely old tree grew. As Cathy said “It did not die just so I could use it.” She now lives in Hudson, NY and is a restorer of antique furniture.

Although the storm killed many trees the beauty of Clermont lives on in the furniture from the estate.

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