Mourning a maple

If a tree falls in front of a museum, does it make history?

Southwest Minneapolis lost a piece of living history earlier this summer when strong winds accompanying a violent hailstorm toppled a large part of the Silver Maple tree that may have been one of the oldest in the city, said Jack Kabrud, curator of the Hennepin History Museum.

Kabrud is a credible expert, as the fallen tree stood in front of the George Christian Mansion, which now houses the museum at 2303 3rd Ave. S.

Kabrud, who has been with the museum for 22 years, witnessed the toppling from inside a third-floor exhibit room, where he was securing windows against the wind, rain and hail.

&#8220I thought [the tree] would come right through window at me,” he said. &#8220Sheets of rain covered the windows, but I heard this tremendous crack, and I knew what was happening. It just breaks my heart.”

The storm and fear subsided quickly, leaving the southern half of the tree lying in the small front lawn, parallel to the street. The museum's flagpole lay nearby, a related casualty.

&#8220We were lucky it didn't hit the house,” Kabrud said. The Hennepin County Historical Society purchased the George Christian mansion in 1957. It has housed the museum since then.

Original blueprints of the mansion's 1919 construction - from the museum's permanent collection - clearly show the tree and plans for the half-circle brick wall that still surrounds the 5-foot diameter stump between the mansion and the 3rd Avenue sidewalk.

The blueprints prove that the tree was at least 87 years old, Kabrud said. It was considered one of oldest trees in Minneapolis in the 1930s or 1940s, he said, citing a contest at that time that crowned another tree - a slower-growing oak near Franklin Avenue in the Prospect Park neighborhood - as the city's king of conifers.

The inside of the maple tree's main trunk was hollow, it was revealed, and had cracked in half. The gaping hole was large enough for Susan Larson-Fleming, the museum's archivist, to stand inside - but only once a huge chunk of concrete had been removed from the middle. Kabrud guesses the concrete was poured inside as many as 50 years ago to ballast the hollowing tree. Chains that held the tree steady in the 1930s and 1940s have long since broken away, Kabrud said.

In the days that followed, the entire tree was removed, though half of it had withstood the storm. The removal effort further damaged the brick wall and iron fence that surround the spot. Kabrud saved one chunk of wood - and for now, the cumbersome, ugly chunk of concrete filling - and the rest was cut up for chips and firewood, he said.

By late July, the tree's stump still remained outside the museum. Kabrud said it will be removed, and he hopes to replace it with a smaller flowering tree, &#8220not so huge that it blocks the museum,” he said.