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Vermont Almanac editor took to the woods of Rupert to check on a possible state record tree. He went with fellow treehounds Don Lewis and Madeline Leach; Ken Leach and Joanne Chickering, and their kids Afton, 2, and Merritt, 10 months; Gwen Kozlowski of the Vermont Big Trees program; and John Pelton. 

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RUPERT — It was a top-10 kind of day, a few months back, and Don Lewis, 84, and Madeline Leach, 97, were leading a gang of us out to the back corner of Ken Leach and Joanne Chickering’s cornfield in North Rupert to see what we hoped would be a state record black cherry tree.

Gwen Kozlowski, who administers the state’s Big Trees program, was there with her rangefinder (to measure height) and tape (to measure girth and crown spread). She’d make the determination.

Don has been many things in his professional and retired life — civil engineer, forester, logger, Christmas tree farmer, trapper, hunter of animals and herbs, town treasurer/clerk/zoning administrator, and chairman of the local Historical Society to name a few. He was born and raised in Rupert, a little rural town nestled into the western flank of the state, traveled with the Army and with the U.S. Geological Survey, then returned to raise a family.

In his retirement he’s become a big tree hound — he pursues them like he used to pursue beaver when he could get around a little better. The allure of the hunt, plus reverence for past and place. He once held 12 different Vermont big tree records, and though he’s down to four, he aims to be back in double digits soon. Don is gregarious and larger than life, even with bad hips that make him list. He uses two peeled walking sticks that make his shape sprawl. If you were to imagine him as a tree, he’d be a quintessential Vermont sugar maple, a charismatic yard tree that you couldn’t imagine a place without.

Don’s sidekick today and on many of these big tree hunts is his neighbor and first cousin John Pelton, 82. John is deliberate and friendly — Ed McMahon to Don’s Johnny Carson — with a quiet intensity. He and his family ran the local general store for decades. His and Don’s grandfather owned the boltwood mill in town where they turned veneer white birch into florist picks back in the days before plastic was ubiquitous. John’s wiry and fit, a champion snowshoe racer who’s traveled all over the country. If he were a tree, he’d probably be a musclewood.

Madeline — they call her Nan — would be Amelanchier tree; most people call it shadbush, but the proper name better captures this native tree’s elegance. Nan’s graceful and lucid as she nears 100. She was a teacher in the Dorset, Rupert and Danby schools over the course of a long career. She and her late husband, Howard, owned the farm where the tree grows, and she sold the land to Ken and Joanne, who came driving in on an orange UTV with their kids, Afton, 2, and Merritt, 10 months, to meet us in the back of the field. Black locusts, the lot of them: that tree species associated with farming and indestructibility. They milk 55 cows and farm 200 acres. Ken spoke of his family’s deep roots in the valley — it was pretty much the Native Americans, then the Leachs. And how he was happy for Nan that she got to see the black cherry declared a champion. The tree was struck by lightning last summer and lost its main leader, but it persisted.

Here’s a picture of everyone: Nan and Joanne and the kids at left; Ken talking politics with Jim White in the foreground; Don Lewis and Alan Calfee leaning on the tailgate. You can barely make out Charles Leach — Ken’s uncle — talking with Gwen in the background, perhaps about the turkey that Charles killed during this spring’s turkey season right near where we were standing. There’s an old picture of the state reintroducing wild turkeys on this very farm in 1969 — opening cages and the birds soaring across the meadow toward the ridge in the middle distance. Charles was there. That could have been a whole different story, organized around the idea that everything and nothing changes. Turkeys going from zero to fully recovered in the course of a half century, and this farm largely staying the same. These old farm families and these old people just keeping on keeping on, roots as deep or deeper than any one of these record trees, as intrinsic a part of rural life as any plant or animal.

That’s the black cherry in the background: 184 inches in circumference, 58 inches in diameter, 48 feet tall, 60 feet of crown spread, a total big tree score of 247. It was indeed impressive.

Dave Mance III is an editor at Vermont Almanac, an annual publication that documents life in rural Vermont. Volumes I and II are available at The team is currently working on Volume III, which will be out in December.


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