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Letter From American History - June 2012

By Editor 
Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: March 28, 2012 
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Tall Tree Tale

When Harold Holzer made his first pilgrimage years ago to the cottage on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., that was President Abraham Lincoln's favorite retreat, one living relic seemed to capture the site's original spirit: a gigantic copper beech tree. "Standing under the tree was like being in a big hut," says Holzer, author of "Where Lincoln Went to Cry." "It was a big lush bower with long branches that extended to the ground and had grown their own roots." Eyewitness chronicles describe Lincoln leaning his chair against the trunk of a copper beech and enjoying the shade. When Holzer provided expert commentary for a TV segment Martha Stewart filmed in 2000 at the cottage, the highlight of the show was a maypole dance by schoolchildren around the tree. Stewart also cut sprigs from the branches and in­vited people to plant Lincoln trees all over the country. A couple years later the tree succumbed to heartrot from invading fungi and was declared unsalvageable. "Everybody thought it was a great historical loss," says Holzer. "But when experts did ring tests they discovered the beech was not old enough for it to have been the tree Lincoln used for shade." For Holzer, the moral of the story is twofold: "What it shows is that historians should stick with what they know. It also suggests that even though we can feel Lincoln's presence in the cottage, some mysteries about the details are never going to be solved."

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