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.

Witch’s Brew

by Gaby Kienitz, Head Conservator

Conservators have all the trappings of a magical enterprise — a stock of arcane ingredients, “potions” that we mix up ourselves, tongue twisting phrases that we use and transformative powers on objects. Don’t believe me? Well, I might not have eye of newt or puppy dog tails, but I sometimes clean an object with my own spit; I’ve used things like fish skin glue and lamb intestine for repairs; and I regularly use an ethyl methacrylate methyl acrylate copolymer.

A cast iron tea pot before (above) and after (below) Gaby works her magic.

In order for the “magic” (a.k.a. work) to happen, a conservation lab needs lots and lots of ingredients and tools. There is such a huge variety of objects that come through the lab with such a range of problems, that a certain treatment might be performed only occasionally and thus only a small amount of a certain supply is needed. Sourcing just a little of these supplies can be a challenge. Imagine my dismay when I was missing a few milliliters of one crucial ingredient for the solution needed to treat a collection of cast iron cookware and fire dogs from Corydon Capitol State Historic Site that had been damaged by water leaking from a chimney. My magic wand was broken!

The ingredient I needed — phosphoric acid — is so common that I couldn’t imagine not finding it sold locally. It’s what gives some colas the “bright” taste, it’s a homeopathic medicine, brewers and hydroponic gardeners use it to lower the pH of their mash and water respectively, it can be used as a flux for soldering metals, and it’s used as a rust and hard water scale remover. Everyone I called either didn’t have it or didn’t have it in the pure form that I needed. It was hard to fathom that I would need to have it shipped from elsewhere, like a rare and precious commodity.

Fire dogs before (above) and after (below) conservation.

Just as I was about to give up, Tuxedo Park Brewers Supply came to the rescue with what I needed. I’m used to buying supplies from some interesting places, but theirs is at the top of my list. Their shop exterior is a brightly painted scene of orange and yellow wheat fields with a bright blue sky that you can only find by going down an otherwise drab, nondescript alley in Fountain Square. Yes, that’s right, their storefront is the alley.

This was a simple potion that I mixed for the treatment of the corroded cast iron, just some tannic acid and phosphoric acid. Tannic acid is a product that has been used since ancient times for making inks, in fabric dyeing and leather processing; it occurs naturally in tree galls, the bark of some trees and in tea leaves. It sounds scary, but it comes in the form of a fluffy, tan colored powder. Luckily, I had a whole bottle of tannic acid powder and once I mixed that with some de-ionized water, added a few drops of the phosphoric acid and heated it up, it was ready to be applied onto the surface with hog hair brushes. Through the magic of chemistry, the rust is converted to a stable, black colored corrosion layer. You can see for yourself what a few ingredients can do to change the appearance of some frightening looking objects. If you want to see them in person, you’ll have to visit Corydon Capitol State Historic Site.

Getting crafty in Corydon

by Laura Van Fossen, Program Developer at Corydon Capitol State Historic Site

In September, 75 lucky women will descend on the historic town of Corydon, Indiana, armed to the teeth with hot glue guns, beads, buttons, glitter and all the unique crafting accessories you can think of. They will be participants of the first annual Hot Glue Gun Girls event, a girlfriend getaway at Corydon Capitol State Historic Site on Sept. 16 and 17.

For these two days, women of all ages will participate in three different crafting workshops, sip cocktails at a Moroccan-themed party, have lunch with keynote speaker Debba Haupert of Girlfriendology.com and enjoy fellowship and shopping. Additionally, the historic Corydon downtown square will be transformed into a vendor fair on Friday and Saturday. Open to the public on Saturday, the fair will showcase the unique creations of vendors from near and far. Vendor applications are still being accepted if you are a purveyor of unique goods or supplies!

Download the registration information, holster up your hot glue gun and gather some of your closest girlfriends (or come prepared to make some new ones!). You won’t want to miss this fun girlfriend getaway and crafting weekend!