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Rebirth of the Noble Wye Oak

Centuries-Old Tree, Felled by Storm, Transformed Into Stately Desk for Governor

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2004; Page B01

There was a moment of pin-drop silence when hands lifted the black sheet yesterday morning to unveil the desk built for the governor of Maryland from the branches of a fallen Wye Oak.

Then, a collective gasp, and applause, as the crowd drew in to gaze at the swirling grooves -- "a riot of grain and color," in the words of Jim McMartin, one of the craftsmen who built the desk.

Children from the Naval Academy Primary School admire the new Wye Oak desk after its unveiling in the State House Rotunda in Annapolis. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

It was like looking back across four centuries.

"It's the craftsmanship. It's the quality. But then, it's the wood itself," said Edward C. Papenfuse, the state archivist. "It just sings."

The Wye Oak desk, built from the upper reaches of a tree believed to be about 460 years old, will sit in the governor's office in Annapolis. The 300-pound hand-built desk was the most eagerly awaited prize to be milled from the toppled tree.

On June 6, 2002, a storm took down the Wye Oak, which had towered 96 feet, hollowed and decayed and held together with wires in some places. Its crown covered a third of an acre on Maryland's Eastern Shore. State officials say they believe it was the largest and oldest white oak in the nation. The tree got its name from its location in the community of Wye Mills.

"They simply marveled at this giant in Wye Mills," said Stark McLaughlin, a forester with the state Department of Natural Resources who cared for the oak. "That tree gave us a sense of time, a sense of scale."

After the storm, bundles of Wye Oak wood were cut and handed out to artists and craftspeople across the state, to be carved into gavels and pins and dolls and church crosses. The tree's trunk, 10 feet wide and 32 feet around, may be returned to Wye Oak State Park as a permanent monument.

The gubernatorial desk, which cost $25,000 to build, was the most publicized of the projects and the most controversial. A committee established by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to decide the tree's fate had argued against it.

"It used too much wood, that's what the committee thought," said H.M. Dick Orrell, a Wye Mills resident who sat on the committee. "They had a very rich person in Baltimore who said: 'I'll pay for the desk. It won't cost the state anything.' Well, it cost a lot as far as the tree was concerned, because we lost a lot of the tree."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), speaking before the unveiling yesterday, reminded the audience that the desk rightfully belonged not to him but to his employer.

"This is not my desk," he said. ". . . It's the people's desk -- the people's desk in the people's house."

But after Nov. 30, when the desk is moved from the Rotunda of the State House into Ehrlich's office, it will be seen mainly by the governor's invited guests.

Construction of the desk, which is 74 inches long and 31 inches high, began in June in the workshop of McMartin & Beggins Inc., furniture makers in St. Michaels, Md. The craftsmen dried the wood for a year before they went to work, and they used traditional joinery techniques: hand-cut dovetails, mortise-and-tenon joints, a minimum of nails and screws, a shellac finish.

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