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Discussion on memorial for Ascutney farmer turns into outcry over cutting down tree

  • An old, dying maple tree that stands Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, in a commuter parking lot off Interstate 91 in Ascutney, Vt. The land was once part of a farm belonging to Romaine Tenney, whose farm was seized in 1964 to make way for the interstate highway. Tenney burned his barn and his home, with him inside. The tree is going to be removed and the state of Vermont is now looking for a way to remember Tenney. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring) AP — Wilson Ring

  • In this April, 15, 1964 photo released by the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration, farmer Romaine Tenney, left, stands with state agent James Wu on his farm in Ascutney, Vt. The Vermont Agency of Transportation is asking the public for ideas for a permanent memorial to Tenney, who took his life after his farm was seized in 1964 to make way for the construction of Interstate 91. A meeting is scheduled for Oct. 29, 2019, at the Ascutney fire station. (Donald Wiedenmayer/Vermont State Archives and Records Administration via AP) Donald Wiedenmayer

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 10/29/2019 8:47:02 PM
Modified: 10/30/2019 10:08:40 PM

ASCUTNEY — An Agency of Transportation meeting Tuesday evening that was supposed to be about memorializing Romaine Tenney instead became a debate about the state’s decision to remove a large sugar maple that is the last remaining piece of Tenney’s farm.

Tenney died by suicide in 1964 after setting fire to his farmhouse because the state was about to seize his property for construction of Interstate 91.

Kyle Obenauer, a historic preservation specialist with the AOT, told the roughly 40 people gathered at the Ascutney Fire Station that the tree is in a “serious state of decline” with a large cavity on the back about 10 feet from the bottom.

“There is not enough sound wood to recable it and save it,” Obenauer said, referring to cables installed years ago to try to save the tree.

He also said it is a safety issue because the tree is next to the park and ride where dead limbs and branches could damage cars or injure people.

“The safest thing to do is remove it,” Obenauer said. “We can’t save the tree, but what we can do is honor Romaine.”

But most of those in attendance thought the state was rushing its decision and should have given residents more opportunity to express their opinions. A few said the tree would outlive many in the room.

“It is the last living reminder of what was here,” said Weathersfield Selectboard member John Arrison. “Let it die by itself rather than by chainsaw.”

Dave Fuller, another Selectboard member, said he agrees with Arrison.

“I’m asking you to reconsider the decision,” said Fuller, who was the last dairy farmer in town three years ago when he sold his herd. “The tree is a long way from dead.”

One suggestion, if the tree were to come down, came from Tenney’s grandnephew, Brandon Tenney, of Bellows Falls, Vt. He said the state could leave the 10 feet from the base to the cavity and have a likeness of his great uncle carved into the wood.

Others said the Tenney family should decide what to do with the wood from the tree, which could be used to make a bench.

The prevailing thought was to simply trim the dead limbs and branches and let the tree “decide when it will die,” said Weathersfield resident Jerry Davis, who asked that an independent arborist look at the tree instead of relying only on the state-hired tree expert who determined over the summer that the maple was too far gone to save.

Resident Peter Daniels, one of the few people in the room who knew Tenney, said the tree is in “pretty bad shape.” But he agreed with those who recommended trimming the dead branches.

Daniels said the best option may be to save seedlings from the tree that would grow to replace it.

“Let it survive a little longer and decide how to replace it. That tree is the only memorial that is left,” Daniels said.

Obenauer did not promise he would recommend delaying removal of the tree but did say residents would be given advance notice of plans to cut it down, which likely will be before the end of November.

As far as a memorial to Tenney, there was little input other than a suggestion to allow the family to decide on the wording and location of a historical marker.

Jack Dugdale, an AOT employee who said he was speaking as a West Windsor resident, said whatever is created ought to hang also in the office of the secretary of the Agency of Transportation and in the Statehouse so government officials understand their decisions impact “real people,” and “remind ourselves not to do this again.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at

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