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Ogden’s record-breaking walnut tree reveals its roots

September 7, 2018
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Stan Gudmundsen holds up a pictures of his great-great grandparent's home. Emil Dehn and Mary Liable's house was torn down in 2010 but the large English walnut planted by Dehn still stands on the vacant lot off Park Boulevard near downtown Ogden and could be the largest tree of its kind in the state. Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. (Ben Dorger/Standard-Examiner via AP)

OGDEN, Utah (AP) — Stan Gudmundsen was researching the old Becker’s Brewing plant, where his great-great-great-grandfather once worked, when he learned the tree he’d played under as a child had become famous.

The colossal English walnut tree is all that remains of a century-old downtown neighborhood. It once grew in the backyard of a home that saw multiple generations of Gudmundsen’s own family pass through its doors.

This summer, state officials confirmed the tree is the largest known English walnut in Utah. It’s now in a burgeoning part of the city, on a lot slated for redevelopment.

“It’s not just a tree,” Gudmundsen said. “It’s tied into the growth, depression, downfall and rise again of Ogden.”

After digging through his family history and chatting with his 85-year-old grandfather, Gudmundsen learned the tree was planted by his great-great-grandfather, Emil Dehn.

Emil married Mary Liable, whose father worked at the old Becker’s Brewing. The couple moved into a brand-new bungalow the next block over. Emil worked for Union Pacific and the couple had two children, Otto and Wanda.

Gudmundsen’s octogenarian grandfather claims he remembers watching Emil plant the tree when he was four or five years old.

“He says (he) remembers it clearly,” Gudmundsen said with a laugh and shrug. “At five years old? But that’s what Grandpa says.”

For his part, Gudmundsen has fond memories of the old, white bungalow, first built by Emil and Mary Dehn, then occupied by other relatives as the family grew.

“It had really crazy Victorian floral wallpaper inside,” he said. “The original pictures, the wood-burning stove, it was all untouched for 100 years.”

He used to watch his great-grandmother, Wanda, water the tree and garden by hand. He played with his cousins in the backyard, where the tree shaded a chicken coop and a three-story octagonal birdhouse with a copper roof, built by his great-grandfather.

“I remember going around the tree with a wagon, it was really bumpy,” he said. “We’d fall out when we hit the roots.”

The family sold the home in the late 1990s, per Weber County Assessor records. The once-bustling neighborhood became blighted. Ogden City purchased most of the homes on the block in the early 2000s as part of a revitalization effort.

The little white bungalow was demolished in the fall of 2010, but the giant English walnut was spared.

Utah State University professor Mike Kuhns noticed the tree earlier this year while eating at Slackwater Pub and Pizzeria. He was struck by its size — 85 feet tall, with a trunk 18 feet and 7 inches around and a maximum canopy spread of 100 feet.

Kuhns took a corer to the tree to figure out its age, but was only able to collect rings back to 1969. After examining his sample, he calculated the tree could have been planted more than a century ago.

That doesn’t quite square with Gudmundsen’s grandpa’s memory. But Kuhns said a well-loved tree could have grown faster in its early years and put on fatter rings, making it 80 to 85 years old.

“Even though it means dropping the idea that it’s 100 years old, it then connects it with an event and that is, actually, a cooler thing,” Kuhns said. “Yeah, I’d be comfortable with that.”

Kuhns’s core sample did show, however, that the tree’s growth slowed around the time the property left the family’s care. Then, after the home was demolished, the tree started showing signs of stress.

“The reason ... has almost certainly been due to lack of water, possibly with some root damage done when they tore everything down,” Kuhns said. “It not only has narrow growth rings for the last six years, but when you look into the canopy a lot of the medium and smaller branches are dead.”

The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands has entered the English walnut into the state record. The tree planted at 1935 Childs Ave. by Emil Dehn decades ago is the largest of its kind in the state.

Brandon Cooper, Ogden’s deputy director of Community and Economic Development, confirmed the tree is on city property but said the lot is part of a development agreement with Ogden 20th Street Developers, LLC.

The developer built the apartments and private dog park on adjacent lots. Cooper said he isn’t sure what the future holds for the walnut tree.

“They do not have any plans to develop or sell at this time,” he said.

Gudmundsen, 34, said he hopes the old walnut can be spared, not only because it’s entwined with his own family tree. He sees it as a symbol rooted both in the city’s past and future.

“It’s like a living time capsule,” he said. “I think people are trying to keep memories of the past. Plus, in such a dry state, it’s kind of sad cutting down a big, beautiful, healthy tree.”


Information from: Standard-Examiner, http://www.standard.net