John Kelly's Washington

Stories about wood and what it's worth

By John Kelly
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

At 4 a.m. Feb. 26, buffeted by high winds and still loaded down with snow from two major storms, a 100-foot white oak came crashing down in Jane Callan and Harry Lewis's Brookmont yard. While it landed on five cars and totaled two (including, ironically, a Subaru Forester), it spared their house.

It was almost as if the 125-year-old tree knew where to fall -- and when. A few hours later and the street might have been crowded with schoolchildren.

The oak was a much-loved member of the community, and it was mourned as one. At a memorial service in the neighborhood church, a piece of wood from the center of the tree was passed around, each celebrant breathing in the fragrant scent of its heartwood. "There's nothing like the smell of the inside of a tree right after it's fallen," said Jane, who works at the Department of Commerce.

A few days after the tree fell, someone slipped a note through Jane's door offering to take it for firewood. That would have been sacrilege. Instead, she found Cecil Smith, a Howard County sawyer, who turned the tree into quarter-sawn lumber. Then Jane invited her neighbors to have some.

"Ginny and Paul are making a large dining room table," Jane said. "Ginger and Peter are having a mantle built. David is getting 600 square feet of flooring. Leslie doesn't have a desk and is having one made."

In all, 10 neighbors will use parts of the tree, paying 90 cents a board foot, about 20 percent of the cost of anonymous wood from a lumberyard. Jane is making a bench for her son and a mantle and kitchen cabinets for her house.

The wood -- 10 tons of it -- is drying now, but in early 2011, it will be ready. Craftsmen will shape it with saws and planes and chisels. They'll sand it and stain it. From tiny acorns mighty oaks do grow. And from mighty oaks come family heirlooms.

Jane said: "What a nice thing to be able to make use of that wood in your own home and in the community."

Branching out

For once, the advertisement was right.

The ad promised that the tiny tree would grow fast and grow tall. And grow it did. Thirty-five years after Betty Manning paid $10 for four seedlings, the one that survived reaches 70 feet into the sky and towers over her Fairfax home. Such is the power of the mighty paulownia.

The last time I wrote about paulownia trees was three years ago, after treenappers cut down a 60-foot specimen growing on the grounds of Mount Vernon Unitarian Church. In much the same way thieves pull copper wiring from buildings or gutters from roofs, people were stealing paulownia trees, which were said to fetch a pretty penny in Japan.

Betty said that over the years, men would come to her door, tell her there was something wrong with her paulownia and offer to take it off her hands for free. She always refused. But now she thinks, "If it's worth something and somebody wanted to pay me for it, I could use the money."

"Good luck," said Jeanne Webb of the Riverbend Sawmill near Leesburg. "She missed the boat."

Jeanne said the paulownia craze -- during which big trees were fetching more than a thousand dollars -- ended about five years ago.

Hagerstown's Dan Blickenstaff, past president of the American Paulownia Association, said trees grown on plantations in China are finally mature enough to supply Japan's needs. With the export market dried up, he's focusing on the U.S. market, where the light, strong wood is used in surfboards, wakeboards, canoes and kayaks.

Dan said Betty shouldn't expect silly money, but if she does have the tree taken down, it should be worth something -- hopefully enough to cover the cost of cutting it down in the first place. For now, she's biding her time.

Send a Kid to Camp

Trees are one thing Camp Moss Hollow has plenty of. You can help kids enjoy the great outdoors by making a tax-deductible gift. Mail a check or money order, payable to "Send a Kid to Camp," to P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237. Or contribute online by going to and clicking on the donation link. To use MasterCard or Visa by phone, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions on our taped message.

Or head over on Wednesday to Clyde's or the Old Ebbit Grill, where the wild Alaska salmon salad and any fruit or berry dessert are the special camp items. Order them and proceeds will benefit Send a Kid to Camp.

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