You have to be more than half a century old to remember when New England’s towering elm trees came down, and a couple of decades older than that to recall how stubbornly they resisted splitting with a hammer and steel wedges. When George French photographed Fryeburg, Maine’s world-famous Doughnut Tree for Maine’s Development Commission in the 1950s, it was probably over 125 years old. Had it not been for the importation of elm logs from Europe it might have lasted the better part of another century, but those logs brought the disease that killed it and most of our other elms.
Isaiah Warren, a farmer and entrepreneur who built this house on Portland Street, filled it with at least two sons and six daughters. If he did not plant the tree, he at least allowed it to grow. He may also have trained one limb into the curl that made the tree famous, but if it occurred naturally, someone later braced it with a cable slung through the fork. Into the early 1960s, parents traveling to Fryeburg from adjoining towns found it productive of passenger satisfaction to swing down Oxford Street and enter the village from the east, via Warren Street, to let the kids have a look at the tree that adorned postcards across the U.S.
The proximity of the tree to the street and house made it more of a hazard than it otherwise might have been. It was cut down in 1964, early in the slaughter that took out all the elms lining the main streets of every village in Fryeburg and Conway. In the intervening 55 years, another tree has grown to maturity and an early demise a few yards away.
The loop in the Doughnut Tree hung too low to be of any use as a support for a swing, and short of a desire to create a distinctive piece of natural sculpture, there would seem to be no reason for deliberately deforming the limb. On the other hand, it must have been an inviting spot for amateur tree-climbers, and at least one photo from the early 20th century shows a little girl sitting in the curl. Isaiah Warren’s children may have played in it, including Dr. Orin Warren (1833-1916), who spent his adult life in West Newbury, Mass., and served as a surgeon during the Civil War.
When Isaiah Warren died in 1875, his daughter Ann took over the house with her husband — Dr. William C. Towle, another Civil War surgeon. Ann’s older brother, Otis Warren, built a house on Warren Street, and erected a tannery right across the street from the Towles and the Doughnut Tree. The tannery may have had something to do with a canal, or drainage swale, that passed under the street in that vicinity. That operation may have raised a stink between the siblings, because tanneries tended to be a fairly malodorous undertaking. That would have made the Doughnut Tree a less pleasant site for recreation, and the front porch of the house a less relaxing spot to sit than it was before, or is now.