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Brockton Liberty Tree’s story lives on

Clones, remnants, sapling all recall arboreal landmark

Willie Wilson at a table made from a slice of Brockton’s Liberty Tree.

George Rizer for The Boston Globe

Willie Wilson at a table made from a slice of Brockton’s Liberty Tree.

Brockton’s towering Liberty Tree met its end in a wood chipper a decade ago, a victim of the insects that ate its core and the punishing storms that stole its limbs.

George Rizer for The Boston Globe

Historical Society curator Willie Wilson with a slice of Brockton’s original Liberty Tree.

But artifacts made from the sprawling sycamore — which marked a major stop on the Underground Railroad — and a pair of clones that are already pushing dozens of feet into the sky are going a long way to keep the story alive, historians say.

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Even a 15-foot sapling has sprung from the original tree’s stump on Frederick Douglass Avenue, said Brockton Historical Society curator Willie Wilson, a retired Brockton High School teacher and college professor.

“Freedom can not be held down,’’ said Wilson, a city native who is himself the descendant of slaves.

Until 2004, the Liberty Tree stood outside what were once the High Street stables of hotel keeper Edward E. Bennett, an outspoken abolitionist who hid slaves in his barn.

Over time, the tree — which some date to 1655 and others to 1800 — was a gathering place for orators, from William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass in the pre-Civil War quest for freedom, to Lucy Stone and Lucretia Mott, who championed a woman’s right to vote.

“Brockton has a rich history, but it is a complex one,” Wilson said, speaking of the city’s frontier days as part of North Bridgewater, to the Underground Railroad safe house effort, women’s suffrage, the rise of the shoe industry, and its role as a trailblazer in electric power, thanks to Thomas Edison.

“If only the tree could talk, there is so much I want to know,’’ he said.

George Rizer for The Boston Globe

A clone of the sycamore that grows on the lawn of the society’s museum.

When it eventually came down, many in the city were outraged, crying racism. But as ravaged as it was by the elements, Wilson said, the Liberty Tree could not be saved.

What arborists at Arnold Arboretum could do was preserve a pair of cross slices of its trunk, he said.

Brockton Public Library director Elizabeth Marcus recently put out the word that one of the huge, 4-foot round artifacts is on display on the top floor of the library’s 304 Main St. building.

“When you see it, remember the freedoms we currently hold dear, and the people who came before us who helped make our lives so much better,’’ she said.

Another slice of the trunk, which took four men to set on a heavy wrought-iron base, is being used as a table in a display at the historical society, at 216 North Pearl St.

The table is set with the smooth, wooden platters, bowls, and vases that the Woodworkers Union crafted in 2005 from the tree’s remains.

At that time, curator emeritus Gerald Beals, an author and historian from Easton, said he arranged for students and teachers at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School to clean and preserve the cross slices, which were coated in more than a dozen layers of polyurethane.

George Rizer for The Boston Globe

The remaining tree stump.

But more descendants of the mighty tree could be anywhere, Beals said, after students in a 1960s-era civic club collected its seeds, planted them, and even tossed them from an airplane.

“The history of the tree is tangible,’’ said Beals, 83. “You can see it. You can feel it.”

But in the years after the tree was cut down, the untended stump had become unrecognizable.

A few weeks ago, Campello neighborhood resident Chris Kostka spent much of his Sunday sprucing up the Liberty Tree site with a group that does regular city cleanups.

“A lot of people here have forgotten about the Liberty Tree, and no one realized it had started to grow back,’’ said Kostka, 19, the youngest member of the city historical society. “It was so overgrown it had turned into a giant bush.”

Kostka hacked away at the growth, freeing up the tree, and the plaque attached to a rock beside it. It is important, he said, to remember such an icon.

As for the clones that were created in 2005, one has grown to 25 feet high on the front lawn of the historical society, Beals said. The other, which he has taken on as a personal project, thrives in a secret location.

“It’s been in my care all these years to see it protected from insects and disease,’’ Beals said. “My original plan, if I’m still around, would be to replant it, in its original location, in four years.”

Bennett, the hotel keeper, was a leader in the fight for freedom who took risks, according to Wilson and Beals. He was passionate about human rights and put up slaves making their way to Canada in a variety of hidden locations, including the South Congregational Church in Brockton Center, one of seven local stops on the safe-house system that then ran out past Randolph, to New Hampshire, and on north.

“He would hide them, one or two at a time,’’ Beals said. “But the major stop was Bennett’s barn.”

The tree, with its light gray bark, took on a distinct shine in the evening that helped slaves find it, he said.

Years after it had faded from acclaim, the touchstone for injustice again drew protesters, in August 1927, the night anarchists and convicted murderers Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed, Beals said.

Beals said he considers the tree’s longevity “almost providential” for the community’s culture and people.

“It’s like a miracle,” he said. “And definitely a moving experience.”

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.
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