On Main Street

Ever wonder how our emblematic trees survived disease and hurricanes? Remember the eco-warriors of the L.V.I.S.
The ladies of the East Hampton Village Improvement Society
The ladies of the East Hampton Village Improvement Society have tended our street trees with love, and money, since about 1907.

    The trees that helped East Hampton become known as the “most beautiful village in America” couldn’t have done it on their own. The Ladies Village Improvement Society tree committee may be one of many satellites orbiting the mother ship, but its efforts over the years are largely responsible for the accolade.

    The organization got going in 1895 when a band of 21 women did what they could to “tune down the dust on Main Street with their water wagon,” Olivia Brooks, the chairwoman of the tree committee for the past three years, said.

    The L.V.I.S. set its sights on keeping the core of the village — the pond, the streets, and the trees — beautiful. By 1907, it had taken responsibility for the many American elms that arched over Main Street. Today, although elms have disappeared elsewhere, the L.V.I.S. boasts of 169 in the village. despite the Hurricane of 1938, Dutch elm disease, and other setbacks. All of them are over 100 years old.

    About a third of the 326 elms on Main Street in 1938 were lost, and, to add insult to injury, 69 had succumbed to Dutch elm disease by 1978. The scourge is a fungus that arrived in a shipment of logs from Europe in 1930. By 1970, it had killed 77 million elms throughout the country. Despite the L.V.I.S.’s best efforts, between  177 additional elms on private and public property in the village died between 1978 and 1981. Added to those that went down in 1938, it was, Ms. Brooks said, a big blow and an inducement to take on other species. Today, a database documents every tree in the village and is updated every year when trees die or are removed and when  new ones are planted.

    The L.V.I.S. partnered with the incorporated Village of East Hampton in taking care of trees after the hurricane. That mission now extends to 3,733 street trees. As partners, the village and the L.V.I.S. share the total cost — about $300,000. In addition, the tree committee shoulders the expense of buying and planting 25 new trees every year. As for pruning, it spent $22,000 in the past year. (In 1980, the L.V.I.S. tree budget was $45,000.)

    As a nonprofit organization, the L.V.I.S. is reliant on private donationa, its summer fair, and sales at its second-hand shops, which brim with clothing, books, household goods, and furniture. Donations often go to its commemorative tree program; for $750 one can buy or adopt a tree, with a memorial plaque..

    The trees planted now are less likely to succumb to elm disease, which spreads through adjacent roots. In making choices, the tree committee — which now has 33 members — considers other criteria: longevity, growth, aesthetics, and response to street life, what with the fumes of vehicles, runoff, and the salt involved in snow removal.

    Those chosen for Main Street include zelkovas, a few silver maples, Chinese elms, linden, and beech trees. As for the old American elms, Treewise and Sav-a-Tree use a preventive treatment in a rotating pattern over an annual and triennial period. Treewise also fertilizes in spring and summer and watches how young trees are developing. The company also makes sure for three years that young trees get enough water in summer.

    In addition to an elm task force, headed by one of the committee’s members, Mary Fallon, the village and the L.V.I.S. hire an arborist and a plant pathology expert to check on the health of the trees regularly. 

    Ms. Brooks said that even after three years as the committee’s chair she still has a lot to learn. “I was born here. I love East Hampton, I love what it means and what it looks like.”