A tree grows in Brooklyn, but The Tree grows in central Nebraska.
What can one tree do for a town?
Humorist, folklorist, and journalist Roger L. Welsch, of Dannebrog, Nebraska, led us to an answer. A retired senior correspondent from CBS News Sunday Morning, Welsch is well-known throughout the state for his “Postcards from Nebraska,” a popular segement from the morning news program. But some topics can’t be dispatched in a post card. Here are two passages from Welsch’s essay “Beating a Live Horse.”
In Dannebrog, Nebraska, a town close to my farm, there is a maple tree just down the street east of the bank and the hardware store. Each fall that tree explodes into the most exquisitely formed, flamboyantly iridescent blast of color that has ever been seen around Nebraska. Admittedly, there may be ten thousand trees on Lake Otsego or in Brown County, Indiana, each of which is more beautiful than the Dannebrog tree, but in Nebraska where there are so few trees and where there are so few varieties of trees, this tree is awesome in its splendor. I cannot adequately describe the beauty of that tree…
As two scholars of plant and earth science with an interest in public education, we were captivated that a single tree could become so beloved. Since Welsch wrote his essay some 30 years ago, we wondered if the tree were still alive. We were eager to find out what species of tree it was and what colors its fall foliage exhibited that made it so remarkable. Most importantly, we wanted to know if it continues to arouse a sense of wonder in the townsfolk of Dannebrog, if it had indeed entered the 21st century. And so we traveled to Nebraska this autumn. Was The Tree still there?
Dannebrog was founded through a Danish colony project of 1873, one of hundreds of Danish settlements established in the U.S. during the wave of immigration between 1850 and the early 1900s. According to T. G. Jeppesen’s Dannebrog on the American Prairie (2000), over 300,000 Danes emigrated to America during this period. In enclaves such as this one, the new immigrants hoped to preserve some of their own culture and values; thus, the town itself was named for Denmark’s red-and-white flag. (In 1989, Dannebrog was officially designated as “the Danish Capital of Nebraska” by the state legislature.)
Dannebrog is located along the banks of Oak Creek in central Nebraska’s Howard County, with the nearest well-known city, Grand Island (pop, 42,940), about 16 miles away. The creek once powered a grist mill, and in 1886, the arrival of the railroad helped to sustain the inhabitants.
Dannebrog’s population peaked in 1920 at 436. It was 352 at the time of the 2000 U.S. Census—48 fewer people than when Roger L. Welsch had described the town in 1980. At the time of the 2000 census, there were 96 families living here. Dannebrog supports about 20 small businesses and occupies a little more than a third of a square mile.
Each year the 160-year-old village’s modest population of 352 swells to well over 1,000 on the first weekend in June when people from across the region flock to Danneborg to celebrate “Grundlovsfest” (Danish for “constitution festival”). It’s an annual heritage festival which commemorates the anniversary of the signing of Denmark’s Free Constitution in 1849 by King Frederik VII. Events include aebleskiver (Danish pancakes), artists, a cake/bake walk, class reunions, cloggers, cow bingo, horse and buggy rides, a jam session, a kid’s money dig, tractor pulls, a melodrama, a “Muzzleloaders Rendezvous,” a parade (with floats, farm equipment, vintage cars, local/regional celebrities and bands), plus a quilt show, all topped off by a street dance and beer garden.
And each autumn brings a local celebration too, of a different kind. Welch writes that “the four hundred citizens of Dannebrog” turn their attention to the tree just down from the hardware store; they watch with anticipation and hope…
They worry about the early frosts and high winds;
they resonate with the easy chill of a fall night. They watch the slow,
uneven change and use body English to push the color into its most
splendid intensity. Scarcely a conversation passes in Dannebrog without
some mention of The Tree. The Dannebrognagians roll the vision around
in their heads like a cabernet should be rolled about in the mouth.
They compare its color and brilliance with those of previous years.
They speculate on the reasons for such variation…. New photos are
taken. Then the whole town permits a reluctant submission to the
inevitability of the Tree losing its color and its leaves as fall
becomes winter…. For a while the discussion in the streets has not been
of cents per bushel or hundredths of an inch of rainfall but of
aesthetics… and, I would say, of community history, social solidarity,
local pride, spirit, as well.
Before Nebraska was tilled by the plow, much of the Great Plains from the Texas panhandle northward was treeless grassland. Trees grew only along the floodplains of streams and rivers. Native trees on Dannebrog’s Oak Creek are mostly cottonwoods and oaks. The general lack of trees elsewhere indicates that this region of the U.S. is characterized by little moisture, frequently dry, sandy soil, and lots of sunshine—a semi-arid land. Thus, it is no accident that Nebraskans value trees so much, or that Arbor Day originated in Nebraska. Back in 1872, Julius Sterling Morton first proposed that a special day be dedicated to tree-planting and increasing awareness of the importance of trees.
When we arrived in Dannebrog, we first stopped to chat with the local pizza baker, Tom Schumacher, to discover the exact location of The Tree. Welsch hadn’t specified what kind of maple we should be looking for, nor had we seen the bank or the hardware store—landmarks tied to the tree’s location in that 1980 essay. We learned from Tom that the bank had become a credit union and the hardware store was now a grocery store. He then walked with us to make sure we were looking at the correct tree.
As we came upon it, Tom told us that the Dannebrog Maple was once much more symmetrical and magnificent than it appears today. He noted that two sections of the tree’s canopy no longer leaf-out (due perhaps to disease, insects, or climatic impacts), causing gaps in its “formerly perfect” autumnal silhouette.
Although the village of Dannebrog does have other trees, its favorite tree, its signature tree, is found flanking the entrance to the local park. It is a ~40-foot-tall-by-50-foot-wide, elliptically crowned, non-native Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum). The vivid orange-with yellow-and scarlet-tinged colors of this tree’s leaves are noticeable from over a block away. The Tree stands, appropriately, on the corner Maple Street and Park Row Street.
As we had expected, the Tree was clearly past its prime, yet we could easily visualize its former glory. We also found that as we circled around it, the old maple gave us many unexpected, beautiful views. Fortunately for Dannebrog, Sugar Maples can live up to 300 years—although trees growing in towns and in areas that experience plant stress (extreme temperatures, moisture deficiency, poor soils) can have shorter lifespans. May the Dannebrog Maple live to witness the village’s bicentennial celebrated in 2050!
We learned from the locals at Kerry’s Grocery that The Tree is usually at peak color for only three days each year, an occasion that may fall anytime between late August and late October. Kerry and a friend hypothesize that the month of the year when the tree turns color signals whether it will be a mild or a severe winter — it’s an idea they’re still testing. The curators at Dannebrog’s Pawnee Art Center said that the village ought to host a festival or a viewing party each year when The Tree starts turning colors.
Famous Dannebrog native and authority on all things Dannebrogian, Roger Welsch, commented that The Tree “…says a lot about the aesthetics of the common man. That tree is admired from all angles, just like fine art in a museum.”
We agree! It was a botanical adventure to track down, view, and update the
status of this literature-enshrined, century-spanning, rural Nebraska plant that had uniquely captured the public’s eye. We learned
that, even greater than its physical attractiveness, The Tree is a
major Dannebrog conversation-piece. It was very enjoyable to talk to
the local folks and garner their impressions of the tree’s past glamour
and its crowds of visitors, probing their memories of its glory days. Even in its advanced years, it is still beautiful and its colors are a rare visual treat in central Nebraska. And it truly is an artwork of nature.