Preserving the Constitution Elm

contributed by: Laura Von Fossen, Corydon Program Developer

Constitution Elm, Corydon, Indiana

More than 200 years of Indiana history have passed by the  Constitution Elm Tree in Corydon, Indiana.   Thanks to the efforts of the Indiana State Museum, projects are underway to ensure that the tree will continue to serve as a symbol of Indiana statehood for generations to come.

The tree took its place in Indiana history when, in June of 1816, delegates drafting Indiana’s first state constitution met beneath its branches.  The Capitol building had not yet been completed, and the log cabin that served as a makeshift territorial building became too hot, so the 43 delegates took their discussion outside.  The tree stretched over 130 feet across and 50 feet tall, providing ample shade to the men crafting our constitution.  The tree became known as the Constitution Elm, a well-recognized symbol of the founding of Indiana.

In 1925, the Constitution Elm was overcome by Dutch Elm Disease.  Although numerous attempts were made to save the tree, it was determined the best thing to do was to trim its branches and preserve the trunk.  All the wood, down to the shavings, was saved and made into souvenirs and other items (the 1816 Constitution on display in the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis is housed in wood from the Constitution Elm).  The remaining trunk of the elm was later placed in a large sandstone monument, where it remains today.

As the celebration of Indiana’s bicentennial draws closer, the Constitution Elm will once again be a focal point for Hoosiers commemorating the “birth” of their state. The staff of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites has been aware of the need to reevaluate the condition of both the tree and the sandstone monument.  This past spring, a team of conservators from the museum visited the Constitution Elm to take pictures and samples of the tree for further evaluation.   In mid-September, photographs were taken of the top of the monument so that an idea of its condition could be gained.  Conservators are currently reviewing the findings and consulting with experts to determine the best route to preserve the tree for future generations.

The difficult question in all this: how do you preserve a tree that is already dead?  Our conservators are discussing the matter with experts across the country…including experts who work in preserving totem poles!  Preserving this important symbol of Hoosier history is of high importance to the Museum, but as with all things done right, it takes time.    Ensuring the Constitution Elm is in the best condition possible for 2016—and future years—is a project we are proud to be undertaking and intend to be sure it is done in the best way possible.

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