This sycamore at the intersection of Route 179 and West Mountain Road in Canton has been spared the ax. Tom Condon / CT Mirror

The town of Canton has an arboreal oddity, a tree growing right in the middle of a road. The tree, a sturdy, stately sycamore planted in the 19th century, stands in the center of West Mountain Road just before its “T” intersection with Cherry Brook Road in the semi-rural Canton Center area. Traffic enters West Mountain Road on one side of the tree and exits on the other.

Is it a nuisance or an asset?

That question played out this spring. Some town officials saw it as a possible hazard and wanted to take it down. But more than 200 residents rose and said, in the words of the poem, “Woodman, spare that tree!” 

In an April email to the board of selectmen, retired college professor Harvey Jassem said the sycamore is evidence that Canton values its uniqueness. He said the tree amazes newcomers.

“A 150-year-old tree standing tall and beautiful in the middle of a road, hurting no one and unscathed in all those years, speaks volumes.”

The people triumphed, the tree has been spared, the chainsaw will “touch not a single bough.”

Not the only quirky preservation issue in Canton

Preserving anything in Connecticut can be challenging. Witness the fact that the Old State House was targeted for demolition in the 1970s to make room for a parking garage but was saved by citizen protest. Since then many historic buildings have been saved (but some lost as well).

The Canton tree saga, as well as measures in some other towns, suggests residents are taking a broader view of what aspects of the landscape, such as local quirks and idiosyncrasies and not just well-known historic buildings, are important and ought to be kept in place.

For example, Canton is battling, thus far successfully, to save a rock formation.

Up a tree

The tree story began in March when a resident reportedly complained that the tree blocked sight lines, making the intersection dangerous. First Selectman Bob Bessel said in a recent interview there had been complaints over the years that the tree made turns challenging for school buses, snow plows and fire trucks.

And, as luck would have it, the state was preparing to repave Cherry Brook Road, also known as CT Route 179, and offered to remove the tree at no cost to the town. Here was a chance to solve the problem on the state’s tab, so officials posted the tree for removal.

Except, as it turned out, the tree wasn’t much of a problem, if a problem at all, and people really liked it.

Less than an hour after the tree was posted, an “avalanche” of emails and calls began. Bessel said more than 200 residents weighed in as word got around.

“Were virtually all of them in favor of saving the tree?”

“That would be an accurate estimate,” Bessel said. He said it was the greatest response to any issue in his four years in office, “including COVID.”

Residents produced data showing the intersection was no more dangerous than some other intersections on Cherry Brook Road, probably because the tree makes drivers slow down and proceed cautiously. A resident paid for a study by a traffic engineer, who found no reason to remove the tree.

The board of selectmen changed course and came up with a new solution. As the repaving of Cherry Brook Road proceeds, the state will narrow the travel lanes slightly and repaint the lines, giving drivers more room to see around the tree.

“The bottom line: the tree stays,” Bessel posted on the town’s website on May 5. 

A barn and Jim Brook at The Shoppes at Farmington Valley in Canton. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

The golf course and the red barn

Canton has not always been successful at preserving its unusual assets.

It once had a funky and picturesque nine-hole golf course along Route 44. But the town, hungry for property tax revenue, allowed it to be plowed under two decades ago for a shopping mall, despite some protests. The mall owners did retain an old red barn on the property, which now is used for events. But the barn without fields or fairways around it — it was a farm before it became a golf course in 1931 — looks incongruous and out of place, said Canton activist Jane Latus.

Across the street from the golf course stood a white colonial farmstead, built in 1796 by Solomon Everest, a Revolutionary War surgeon and one of the founders of Canton.

It was added to the state’s register of historic places in 2001, which was supposed to encourage its preservation. It was preserved for a matter of months, then dismantled and carted away in 2002, to be replaced by a chain pharmacy.

These events spurred Latus and journalist Theresa Sullivan Barger, to form Canton Advocates for Responsible Expansion — C.A.R.E. — to encourage sound land use and development that respects the town’s character and history.

Among many issues the organization has weighed in on, including the town’s new zoning code, is a campaign to “Save the Rock.”

The rock

Entering Canton from the east on Route 44, just past the Simsbury line, there is a traprock ridge on the north side of the road. The basalt outcropping is a kind of gateway feature, a green break from the strip mall sprawl to the east.

A wooded traprock ridge that looms over Route 44 in Canton. A developer, Mark Greenberg, proposed excavating part of the ridge for a 20-dispenser gas station, electric vehicle showroom and convenience store. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

A couple of years ago a developer proposed blasting and excavating part of the ridge for a 20-dispenser gas station, electric vehicle showroom and convenience store. C.A.R.E opposed the proposal on esthetic and environmental grounds — there is a state superfund site nearby and engineers think blasting could contaminate groundwater.

The proposal, and a second one, were turned down by the town’s planning and zoning commission in 2021 and 2022, but it is not clear if the developer has abandoned the project.

Why?

First Selectman Bessel said he was surprised — “We didn’t see it coming” — at the outpouring of support for the tree, noting that other trees, including trees on Cherry Brook Road, had been taken down without a peep from the populace.

But trees can, depending on circumstance, take on meaningful symbolism. The premier example in this state might be the famed Charter Oak, which is numismatically honored on Connecticut’s state quarter. In 1662 King Charles II granted the Connecticut Colony a charter giving it a measure of self-rule. But in 1687, the new King, James II, wanted it back and sent troops to fetch it.

However, legend has it, in the middle of a night meeting, candles were extinguished and the charter spirited away, hidden in the hollow of a large white oak.

The tree came to symbolize freedom and Yankee ingenuity. The city held a large funeral service, with dirges by Colt’s Band and a parade, when the tree, thought to be nearly 1,000 years old, blew down in a storm in 1856.  There is a monument near the site of the tree, at the intersection of Charter Oak Place and Charter Oak Avenue.

As for rocks, without the Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock would be just another glacial boulder and not a symbol of courage and religious liberty. The state may have some stone icons in the making; Eastern Connecticut has roadside boulders painted as an eagle (Hebron), snake (Marlborough) and frog (Eastford).

In Canton, the tree reminded people of the town’s natural setting, its history and its quirkiness, said pro-tree resident Katie Kenney. She said she knows a couple of people who decided they’d like to live in a community that allowed a tree to flourish in the middle of a road, so moved to town.

Thar she blew

Canton isn’t the only town to save an offbeat or unusual asset, others have as well. How about a whale’s tail?

For nearly four decades, a life-size and life-like reproduction of a giant sperm whale, dubbed Conny the Whale, sat outside the Children’s Museum in West Hartford. Kids loved climbing inside the cetacean sculpture or watching it shoot water from its blowhole.

Alas, the museum has moved and the site is being redeveloped. Conny had to be harpooned, but the town plans to save the leviathan’s tail, which itself weighs 8,500 pounds, and place it on a greenway across the road from the museum site.

Ayannah Brown / Connecticut Public

Old Saybrook has restored two “ghost signs,” hand-painted commercial signs on the side of a building that had faded with time and the elements. This artistic genre was popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and ghost signs still can be seen in many Connecticut municipalities.

One is Stamford, which has its own contribution to unusual preservation. In 2017 preservationists managed to save the 1950s-era design — not the building but the shape of the building — of a Dairy Queen. The corporate ownership decreed its buildings be remodeled with a new design, but residents argued that the barn-like gambrel roof was a local landmark and significant architecturally as “an intact example of roadside architecture still fulfilling its original function.”

Glastonbury has conserved the ruins of two early 19th century textile mills, the Cotton Hollow and Hopewell mills, to recall the town’s manufacturing history.

Not every natural feature is symbolic, nor is every old building historic. Tastes change, and sometimes “we need a little bit of distance to think about what is significant,” said Christopher Wigren, deputy director of Preservation Connecticut, the statewide historic preservation organization. It includes landscapes, along with buildings and sites, in its preservation mission.

He recalled that one his first efforts many years ago was attempting to preserve a diner on the Berlin Turnpike. Some reacted by saying “You want to preserve THAT!!!” Well, yes, and he did. Today he thinks more people would understand the diner’s honored place in roadside Americana.

Something could be worthy of preservation if “it has a presence that helps to make significant parts of the past more alive to us.” That is a broad canopy, under which the Canton sycamore would easily fit.

Tom writes about urban and regional issues for CT Mirror, including planning, transportation, land use, development and historic preservation. These were among his areas of interest in a 45-year career as a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. Tom has won dozens of journalism and civic awards, and was elected to the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2016. He is a native of New London, a graduate of The University of Notre Dame and the University of Connecticut School of Law, and is a Vietnam veteran.