Remarks of Edward C. Papenfuse, State Archivist
At the unveiling of the
Wye Oak Legacy Desk for the Governor of Maryland
10:00 a.m., November 18  2004
State House
Annapolis, MD

Governor, Mrs. Ehrlich,

Mr. Rosenberg,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen.

If there is one thing for which this state house is known, it is the debating, writing and re-writing,  of the laws and the government of our state.

We are privileged and humbled to be standing in the shelter of the largest wooden dome for a State House in North America, hand crafted by the ships carpenters of Annapolis between 1785 and 1788, just in time for a Maryland ratifying convention meeting here  to add their signatures of approval to the Constitution of the United States.

It was also  in this State House, on April 28th, 1788, from which the first printed agenda for a bill of rights would emanate under the direction of former Governor William Paca.  It was here also that all succeeding constitutional conventions of the state would meet, and where the citizen legislature would continue to assemble, making this State House the oldest in the nation still being used for the purposes for which it was built.

It is altogether fitting that we are here today to dedicate another permanent wooden fixture of the State House, one on which all governors of Maryland from this day forward will hone their remarks on public issues and fashion their thoughts on public policy.

Just as the rare Senate President's desk in the Old Senate Chamber was fashioned by local Annapolis craftsmen in the 1790s, so this desk we are about to unveil was created by distinguished  local craftsmen from Maryland's Eastern Shore.  The Senate President's desk is of imported wood, symbolizing the importing  of ideas that were in turn debated and reworked into a new government for our state and nation in this State House.  The Wye Oak Legacy desk we unveil today is of native Maryland wood taken from a tree that, as Senator J. Glenn Beall pointed out, "completely encompassed the entire history of ... British North America and the United States. ... The ... Wye Oak has seen the settlement of 13 British colonies along the eastern coast of North America, the American Revolution; and the emergence of a small, weak, loosely united nation; and its subsequent emergence as a continent-spanning superpower.  It has also overseen the constant struggle, by our people to "establish a more perfect union" --based  on liberty, equality, freedom, and justice."  The first Marylander's arrived on St. Clement's Isle in the Potomac when the tree was already one hundred years old, and it was well into its second century when the foundations were laid for this state house in 1772.

Up Oakdale Road from our house is small oak tree.  It was planted there seven  years ago as a tribute to our 100 year old neighbor and unofficial mayor of Roland Park, Emily Johns.   It is a seedling of the Wye Oak which in June 2002 was blown down in a violent thunderstorm after standing for more than 450 years in the village of Wye Mills on Maryland's Eastern Shore.  Identified by Maryland's first State Forester, Fred Besley, in 1909 as a very large and important tree which would eventually hold the title of the largest white oak in the United States, the Wye Oak was truly inspiring to behold at 96 feet high, with branches that spread out over 1/3 an acre.

Acquired by the State in 1939, for $6,150, in 1941 it became the honorary State Tree when  Governor O'Conor signed into law a bill designating the White Oak (Quercus alba) as the State Tree (Chapter 731, Acts of 1941).  Over the years, as the center piece of the smallest State Park the tree was well cared for by the State and widely photographed.  Seedlings were not only planted as living memorials to loved ones such as Mrs. Johns, but also on the grounds of the U. S. Capitol in 1976 in recognition of the Bicentennial of the United States.

Dr. Frank Gouin, Professor Emeritus of Horticulture at the University of Maryland also recognized that the tree, at its advanced age, demonstrated a remarkable resistance to disease and the gypsy moth.  He replicated the Wye Oak's genes by grafting buds from the tree onto seedlings from its own acorns, cloning the tree and passing on those benefits to future generations.  Two of those clones of the Wye Oak now grace the grounds of Mount Vernon where they were planted in April 2002, just months before the venerable tree lost its last battle against the wind.

Today, because of the generosity of  Henry A. Rosenberg, we are here to pay tribute to the grace, beauty, and symbolism of the Wye Oak in another dramatic and appropriate way.  When the tree fell, the most immediate question was what to do with the wood.  The Departments of Natural Resources, Agriculture, and General Services worked together to preserve as much as possible, inventorying and storing the pieces, and calling for suggestions for an appropriate use.   Mimi Calver of the Archives staff served for many long hours on a committee that gathered ideas, among which was one proposed by the members of the public and the Archives.  The Committee felt that there could be no more fitting use for some of the wood than a legacy desk for the Governor, a place where many of the most important decisions affecting the lives of our citizens will be made.  Such a desk would serve as a reminder to the Governor of the milestones of good government that the life of the Wye Oak encompassed, not the least of which were those that took place in this very state house.

Through a mutual friend, Joe Coale, I approached Mr. Rosenberg with the idea of a legacy desk for the governors of Maryland made from the wood of the Wye Oak.  He graciously offered to underwrite the whole gift, including the desk, the brochure for today, and a book about the history of the tree and the desk to be published next year.   On his behalf the Archives staff sought craftsmen from the Eastern Shore with the skills and the knowledge of local woods  necessary to create a desk of the highest quality and design.

Jim Mc Martin and Jim Beggins of St. Michaels Maryland fit the bill perfectly.  Between them, they have over 25 years of experience of working with local, Eastern Shore woods, milling the pieces themselves and using 18th and 19th century techniques to make beautiful, hand-crafted pieces that are now in some of the most historic homes in Maryland.  I would like them to stand and be recognized.

I would also like to call your attention to the hard work of Mimi Calver, Elaine Rice Bachmann, Vicki Lee, and Sasha Lourie who have done so much to make today's unveiling a reality, as well as providing a lovely exhibit on the Freedom Wall entitled "From Champion Tree to Legacy Desk."   For future reference, along with the plaque designed to recognize the occupants of the desk from this day forward, the  governor will also find that we have secreted in the desk, an Archives box documenting its creation from inception to completion.

In choosing the wood of the Wye Oak for a Legacy Desk for the Governor, we are not only recognizing the rich History of Maryland, but also the national significance of the Oak Tree.

Recently the National Geographic sponsored a contest among grade school students for the best essay on national symbols.  Andrew, the Gold-Star winner, wrote about "The Mighty Oak:"

The new symbol I chose for the United States is a mighty oak tree. ...

There are many reasons why an oak tree would be a good symbol for the United States. The oak tree would show strength because oak is a very strong wood.  The oak tree would also show protection because an oak tree can provide protection from the rain.

It would also show unity because on an oak tree there are many branches, but all of the branches are part of one tree, like the states in the United States. There are 50 states, but all of the states belong to the United States. Also there are many kinds of oak trees, which would represent our country as a diverse nation.

I think that the oak tree would be a good United States symbol because it would represent the United States well.

To Abraham Lincoln:  "Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow.  The shadow is what we think of it;  the tree is the real thing."

While the Oak Tree is an old and respected symbol whose roots reach back to the beginning of history, it has also much more recently come to be thought of as a tree of remembrance around which we tie welcoming yellow ribbons.  Indeed when the practice first began by a Marylander in the late 1970s, a yellow ribbon was tied around the Wye Oak in honor and support  of the hostages in Iran.   Today, as we launch a new tradition of Governors of Maryland working and writing on this Legacy Wye Oak desk, let this yellow Ribbon with which it is tied, not only represent the gold of the Calvert Coat of Arms in the Great Seal of Maryland imprinted on this desk, but also our remembrance of those who are currently fighting for our liberties abroad.

Thank you.

reading copy