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The sweet sound of Liberty.

If you were given a raw chunk of America's past, a piece so rare its likes will never be seen again, and you wanted to create a lasting memorial, one that paid homage to the nation's past in a way that was beautiful and reverent, what would your memorial look like?

The answer came to Washington in early May in a simple guitar case. The guitar inside represented the final resting place of the nation's last remaining Liberty Tree, a towering tulip-poplar in Annapolis, Maryland, that served as a gathering place for Revolutionary War-era patriots.

Each of the 13 original colonies had a Liberty Tree that served as a rallying place on the path to freedom; Maryland's, on the grounds of St. John's College, was the last still standing. The tree, which was about 400 years old, had withstood everything from a gunpowder prank by college students to harmful bugs but finally succumbed in 1999 to damage wrought by Hurricane Floyd.

A portion of the wood from the Liberty Tree was purchased by Taylor Guitars cofounder Bob Taylor and used to make a limited run of guitars that pay homage to the symbols of our past and the tenets of our future.

The "chocolate and vanilla-colored" tulip-poplar wood makes up the back and sides of the guitars. The front, of Sitka spruce edged with abalone, is adorned with 13 stars, representing the original colonies, and inlays of a scrolled Declaration of Independence, an early battle pennant from Revolutionary War days, and the first post-Revolution flag.

The effect is striking. But perhaps the best way to appreciate this particularly American memorial is to just close your eyes and listen.

Recording artist and Taylor clinician Doyle Dykes is playing his own "patriotic melody" during a reception at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building in Washington, DC. As he finger-picks through "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and "America the Beautiful," ending up in a bouncing ragtime version of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," you're struck by the soft, mellow tone. For those who know guitar sounds, it's the difference between a guitar made with tulip-poplar and one made with mahogany or walnut.

For the rest of us, it's just a sweeter sound to the strings.

The idea of a signature guitar is not a new one for Bob Taylor, who has built a respected company that sells to novices and music stars alike. But for him there's something more personal about this particular venture.

"This is a real project of the heart," he says.

Taylor, who is a self-described patriot and history buff, had coveted the wood ever since Emory Knode, owner of the Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe in Baltimore, faxed him a newspaper article about the tree's likely demise. Taylor says he immediately focused on the idea of making guitars from the tree, even dreaming about how the guitar would look, until finally "common sense" took over. A guy from the West Coast would be too far away to have a chance at the wood, he decided.

Then came a call from Annapolis landscaper Mark Mehnert, who had acquired some of the wood and was offering to sell it.

"I was blown away," Taylor says now. "I had the feeling the tree was coming to me."

In describing the Liberty Tree guitar, an article in Taylor Guitars' magazine Wood&Steel says its "materials alone make it the most significant instrument we've ever created. In the 27-plus years of our company's existence, through tens of thousands of instruments made from some of the most incredible tonewoods nature has produced, we've never made a guitar from wood that inspired actual reverence."

In designing the guitar, "less subtle things" like various Revolutionary War themes and a depiction of the 13 original colonies were considered before settling on the more "everlasting symbols," of our nation's history, Taylor explained recently.

Many thought the tree itself would be an "everlasting" symbol of our history. After all, at around 400 years old, the giant tulip-poplar outlasted the typical life-span for its species by 100 years, sometimes through great adversity. It even appeared in "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" in 1961 as "The Poplar that would not die!"

As a prank, 1840s schoolboys stuffed gunpowder into a hollow of the tree but succeeded only in killing worms and fungus inside the tree. In 1907 a landscape architect and forester was hired to clean out decay that bad hollowed out the tree's trunk. He cleaned out the interior to several feet below ground, then filled the hole with 55 tons of concrete reinforced with steel and iron. It was considered to be the greatest successful major tree surgery ever at that point, according to the article about the tree's history in Wood&Steel.

But in 1999 Hurricane Floyd blew across Annapolis, cracking the Liberty Tree's trunk and a major limb. Concerned about potential collapse, the college fenced off the tree and evacuated several rooms in a nearby dorm. A team of experts consisting of professional arborists and officials from the state Department of Natural Resources and the National Arboretum concluded the damage was too great for traditional repairs such as bracing, bolting and wiring.

Some of the decayed wood and concrete was hauled to two recycling plants in Northern Virginia. The rest went to a Millersville, Maryland, landfill, where Mehnert purchased it, then sold it to Taylor Guitars.

In October 1999 the college held a memorial for the tree, then began felling it with a chainsaw. Onlookers took small branches and leaves as keepsakes. The concrete interior made the last 50 feet the most difficult. When it finally fell, onlookers saw that the years of decay had rotted up to 85 percent of the tree's volume. Experts wondered how the tree, which had separated from its concrete midsection, was still standing.

This melding of what could be considered one of America's most "all American" trees with one of its finest guitar makers is perhaps a fittingly dignified end for the historic tree. After all, Taylor's is also an all American success story.

Bob Taylor began his guitar-making career in 1972 at age 17, when he longed for but could not afford a 12-string guitar, and so built his own in high school shop class. He built two more before landing a job after graduation making guitars at a San Diego store called the American Dream.

In 1974 Taylor and a coworker, Kurt Listug, borrowed $10,000 and bought the business. Bob Taylor's innovative acoustic designs quickly caught on with professionals and novices alike and other guitar-makers began following the company's lead. Taylor Guitars now has 335 employees.

Taylor bought a total of 30,000 pounds of wood from Mehnert for $78,000. To the unpracticed eye, at first glance the remains of the Liberty Tree didn't seem all that grand. "Big pieces of firewood," is how Bob Taylor describes it. But, when the wood was split open, it revealed fine grain honed by years of hardship.

"You say to yourself, 'There's guitars in there,'" Taylor says.

Four hundred guitars, to he exact. At $8,000 apiece, the guitars are not cheap, nor are they more than Taylor usually charges for his signature line. All were quickly spoken for.

The buyers, surprisingly enough, are not famous musicians or politicians. Instead, they are average Americans who feel the same stirring of patriotism that Taylor does when he gazes upon the guitar.

Taylor tells of a man who began to cry as he studied one of the guitars on display at the Museum of Music in Carlsbad, California. Turns out that as a child the man witnessed the cutting down of the Pennsylvania Liberty Tree, and seeing the guitar made from Maryland's tree brought the memory full circle for him.

The strength of that man's emotion is reflected in Bob Taylor's passion for the project. Although the 400-guitar run is a small one for a company that produces 250 guitars a day, Taylor Guitars has spent a year videoing the project from start to completion. And it is donating a portion of profits from the sale of the guitars to AMERICAN FORESTs' Historic Tree Nursery.

Of the 400 Liberty Tree guitars, three are destined for Taylors: one for Bob and one each for his and wife Cindy's daughters, Minet, 21, and Natalie, 16. And as he strums his bit of American history, no doubt he can't help but be pleased about his company's role in the next phase of the Liberty Tree story.

Bob Taylor was on hand in May when Taylor Guitars joined AMERICAN FORESTS in presenting the state of Maryland with the first of 14 seedlings grown from the Maryland Liberty Tree. The seeds were collected by Mehnert, the Annapolis landscaper, and given to Jeff Meyer, director of AMERICAN FORESTS' Historic Tree Nursery. Similar presentations are planned for each of the 13 original colonies. AMERICAN FORESTS and Taylor Guitars hope to donate the 14th tree to be planted at the White House.

RELATED ARTICLE: Planting the of liberty.

During the American Revolution, Liberty Trees served a as rallying points for patriots. With the demise of the last standing Liberty Tree--a massive tulip-poplar in Maryland--AMERICAN FORESTS has undertaken a new campaign based on an old idea.

Over the next 10 years AMERICAN FORESTS will help designate and plant millions of new Liberty Trees. These young trees will be connected to the original Liberty Trees in spirit rather than lineage. Like their namesakes, it is hoped they will inspire the national to honor patriotism and freedom.

Working with AMERICAN FORESTS on the Liberty Tree project are Taylor Guitars, which has made 400 specially designed guitars form the wood of the Liberty Tree, and the National Fund for the U.S. Botanic Garden.

Mark Mehnert, the Annapolis landscaper who recovered some of the Liberty Tree wood and sold it to Taylor Guitars, gave AMERICAN FORESTS' Historic Tree Nursery in Florida seeds from the tree. From which 14 small Liberty Tree seedlings were grown. The first was presented to the state of Maryland in May; governors from the other 12 original colonies will also be given a tree, as will the White House.

The Liberty Tree Project was announced during a reception at Washington. DC's Veterans of Foreign Wars building, where attendees included Taylor.

Guitars co-founders and president Bob Taylor and the granddaughters of Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Celia Sandys and Mary Jean Eisenhower, respectively. The presentation of the seedling took place in Annapolis, Maryland, a few blocks from where the state's Liberty Tree stood for 400 years on the campus of St. John's College. The tree was damaged beyond repair by Hurricane Floyd in 1999.--Rachel Brittin.

Michelle Robbins is editor of American Forests.
COPYRIGHT 2002 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Robbins, Michelle
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
Words:1790
Previous Article:Homage: in the wake of September eleventh, American Forests decided to do what we do best; plant trees. (American Forest Annual Report 2001).
Next Article:Stalwart species: tenacious and rugged, the fire-dependent whitebark pine endures where most other trees fail.
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