'Everything is so emotional about this tree': Removal of massive neighborhood elm tree evokes emotions and memories

NOW: ’Everything is so emotional about this tree’: Removal of massive neighborhood elm tree evokes emotions and memories

WAUWATOSA, Wis. (CBS 58) – On the east side of Wauwatosa sat a piece of history that was hard to miss.

A towering American elm tree made Matt Retzer and Sara Werner's home on North 64th street a landmark of sorts.

"Our bedroom's actually right underneath the tree on the top level, so we see it every morning, we see it before we go to bed," Retzer said.

The house was built in 1901. After Matt and Sara moved in in 2005, they had a tree specialist come by.

"He took one look at it, he kind of peered up and was like, I think there's a bigger one in Madison, but this one is maybe the second biggest in the state," Retzer said. "He said in order to get it officially measured you have to have somebody climb it and drop a tape measure. And we're like, ah, it's okay. We don't need to be in the record book."

Almost seven feet in diameter and close to 200 years old, the elm's stature long sparked interest.

"We've had lots of people actually stop us and tell us many stories about how it's the biggest one, and we don't have proof, but we kind of believe it when so many people tell us," Werner said.

Over the years, the tree became famous, attracting visitors of all kinds.

"A while back we had somebody stop by and say, 'I'm an actual tree hugger, and can I hug your tree,'" Retzer said. "Like, sure, I mean you won't get your arms very far around it but go for it."

For some, its existence was particularly sentimental.

"I've had one person reach out to me saying 'this is my brother's favorite tree, and he had wishes for it before he died,'" Werner said. "Everything is so emotional about this tree!"

The towering elm didn't always stand alone.

"There's many city elms along this street line, and one by one we've just watched them die," Werner explained.

Its species, ulmus americana, is slowly disappearing, decimated by Dutch Elm disease.

"From my understanding, it was a beetle that carries the disease, and they go from tree to tree," Retzer explained.

Unfortunately, Matt and Sara's iconic tree wasn't spared by the invasive infection.

"It's been so gradual. I mean, you'd look up, and we'd admire it, and then we were like, it looks a little thinner this year," Werner said.

Last year, the tree didn't bloom.

This year, its branches covered their yard. So, in February., they set up a date for removal.

"As soon as I said which property and which tree, they're like, 'we know that tree, we watch that tree, we love that tree,'" Werner said.

"It's an odd thing, because it's like, you're paying to take something away, and you usually pay to bring something in," Retzer said.

The cut-down began on Leap Day, creating a unique spectacle for the neighborhood.

"They said a 3-foot section of the trunk weighs 5,500 pounds," Retzer said. "So it had to be, 20, 30,000 pounds just for the trunk coming down."

Neighbors had a classic Wisconsin tailgate, Bloody Mary cocktails in hand, to send it off.

"What I thought was neat is just how many people came out and stopped by, and just said 'oh hey, I knew that tree, or I grew up around that tree,'" Retzer reflected.

They counted at least 154 rings in its trunk, a reminder of how deep its roots truly ran through the community.

"You start thinking about all the history that was there, and how much the tree has seen, and how we're really just a small part of that," Retzer said.

Now, the empty lawn sits as a blank canvas; a chance for something new.

"I don't know exactly what I'm going to do with the yard. It's going to change everything, and I've got a lot of planting to do," Werner said.

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