Cottonwood Stories

From: Colby Rucker 
Sent: Sunday, June 08, 2003 7:27 PM

To my knowledge, cottonwoods aren't native to tidewater Maryland, but I understand they occur along rivers in the Piedmont. I've only encountered a few planted specimens.

I recall cutting about four trees, mostly about 20" dbh, all stag-headed or worse, on a local doctor's estate in the late fifties. It was a pretty simple job to drop the trees into the field, roll log lengths back to the edge, and drag the limbs into the woods. The largest tree was covered with a big poison ivy vine. If I'm fairly sensible, I can work with poison ivy, but this was a huge mass of long-limbed three-leafers, which looked pretty threatening on a hot July day.

The doctor noticed my caution, and said that I could drag armloads of the stuff safely. He explained that he was a homeopathic doctor, made many of his own medicines, and had made lots of his special poison ivy pills from that very vine for years. Well, I'd never heard of homeopathic medicine, but his son was our family doctor, and so I took him at his word. He soon produced a little green bottle full of tiny pure white pills - looked like sugar.

I took six as he directed, and put the bottle in the truck. I then picked up big armloads of poison ivy and dragged them into the woods. Sawing up the trunk was hot work, especially with a chain saw of the period - 44 lbs., gear drive. It had a float-type carburetor, so you kept the engine level, but the drive shaft was front-to-back, so that the transmission and front handle could be rotated for different angles of cut.

Well, I raked up the last of the poison ivy, finished the job, went home and took the rest of the little white pills as directed, but certain that I'd soon be scratching all over, or at least have big blisters on my wrists and forearms. Amazingly, nothing happened. Apparently the doctor made a number of other medicines, and marketed them. It would have been interesting to have learned more about homeopathic medicine.

My other memorable cottonwood experience was a big ugly specimen near a tall brick wall that had once separated two grand colonial properties in Annapolis. The only access was through a very narrow alley between two Victorian houses, with almost no working space. We lowered the branches in small pieces, and carried them out without touching the siding of the houses. So far so good.

We started to chunk the trunk down in blocks, and encountered a big nest of honey bees, which delayed things. I've worn a bee suit for German hornets and stuff, and try to spare the critters, but these bees were everywhere. An exterminator snuffed them out that night, and we resumed work the next morning. The blocks were big; four or five feet tall, some five feet thick.

We carefully winched the blocks out between the houses, and loaded them on the log truck.
I had an army 6x6 truck with two winches. There were 18-foot booms in the front, and heavier booms set on top of a tow plate in the rear. The rear booms could be lowered onto the cab, but the truck still took a lot of space on the one-way street.

All went well until I was standing in the street, trying to retrieve a rake that had been left against the log truck's backstop, and was pinched by a block. The rake projected into the travel lane, and I was tugging on it. I heard a car horn, but ignored it. Apparently the driver, an elderly man, was honking at a friend and never saw me. I heard a big "boom!" and was thrown onto his windshield, which must have scared the heck out of him. He hit his brakes, and I then bounced down the street for another fifty six feet.

One of my men was older than I, a hard worker, but henpecked. Immediately he ran to the nearest house, and pounded on the door. The door opened, and he said, "Quick! I gotta use your telephone!" The homeowner asked, "Why? What is it?" My helper replied, "My boss just got hit by a car, and I gotta phone my wife and tell her I'm gonna be late."

Well, someone else called an ambulance, and they carted me off. I was banged up all over, but nothing broken. I worked the next day, and we finished the cottonwood, but I moved like I was ninety years old - at least.

So, that's my experience with cottonwoods. Probably a good thing there weren't more of them around.