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A 'silent witness' to hundreds of years of Danville history, old tree comes down on Main Street

A 'silent witness' to hundreds of years of Danville history, old tree comes down on Main Street

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Workers armed with chainsaws slowly and methodically cut down a centuries-old oak tree from the front yard of a home on Main Street, closing off traffic at Chestnut Street on a hot and humid Tuesday. 

A local group hopes to preserve parts of the tree for display at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History because they believe it could date back about 350 years, making it older than the city. 

It measured at 5 1/5 feet in diameter and stood roughly 100 feet tall. The tree died last August and posed a possible danger, so property owner Kathy Campbell hired Blackwell Tree Service in Danville to remove it. 

Campbell, watching from her porch as workers buzzed through downed branches in the street, was wistful about the tree that was part of the appeal of the Millionaires Row home she bought in 2006.   

"The ambiance of the tree was part of the whole package," said Campbell, a retired pain management nurse who moved to Danville from San Francisco. "It was quite a loss for me."

At the site Tuesday morning, the thick tree's branches stretched and twisted above the home. A man in a bucket hoisted by a crane cut into a branch held in place by straps looped around it and hanging from the crane.   

A crane shifted the suspended branch through the air and lowered it to the street to be sawed into shorter pieces, loaded into the bed of a truck and later hauled to a scrapyard. 

Blackwell Tree Service owner Fred Blackwell expected the job to take several hours.

"We're looking at 10 to 12 hours on the whole removal," he said at the scene. "We've got to be careful because the tree is so ... rotten, like old sponge."

To fell the tree, branches closest to the bucket must be removed first with a crew member making their way to the top. Next, work begins on the trunk. 

"You start on the limbs and work your way in," said Blackwell, who has been removing trees for about three years.

Blackwell, who has three employees including his brother and nephews, removed about three to five trees a week, he said. He serves the region covering a 100-mile radius around Danville. 

On Main Street amid sawdust, scattered chunks of debris and small piles of branches, a Bobcat skid with tracks lowered its wide talon, scooped up the limbs and moved them over to the side of the street. 

Stephen Wilson, director of the Friends of the Old West End in Danville — a nonprofit historic preservation group — called the tree a "silent witness" to hundreds of years of Danville history. 

"The idea is to have a slice of that tree in the museum," said Wilson, who lives next door to Campbell. 

The Friends of the Old West End is dedicated to Main Street and adjacent side streets just west of the River District.  

John Seiler, professor of tree biology at Virginia Tech, said it is hard to estimate the tree's age without counting the rings in its trunk, below the bark. He did, however, say the tree is "centuries old," noting that a tree with a four-foot diameter is 200 to 400 years old.

"It's significantly old," Seiler said. 

Campbell, like Wilson, does not want the entire tree to disappear into obscurity. 

"I hope that this tree is memorialized in some way because it's been here for so long," she said.

Crane reports for the Register & Bee. He can be reached at (434) 791-7987.

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