Story By: Angus Dickerson
Video By: Bianca Padro Ocasio
Henry Davis was attending an Arbor Day celebration on the Common in 2013 when he was presented with a newly planted Princeton Elm, dedicated to his lifetime of work preserving the trees on the Boston Common, the Public Garden, and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.
He was invited to give some brief remarks. For the crowd of friends, family, and colleagues, David recounted one of his earliest memories.
When he was five years old, Henry Davis accompanied his grandfather to the top of a hill on the family farm in rural Pennsylvania. It was the depths of the Great Depression. From the hilltop, Henry and his grandfather watched as nearly a hundred men wearing bowler hats, high button shoes, trench coats, and carrying a sack of saplings and a shovel, planted rows upon rows of new trees. President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps were planting a forest on the abandoned farmland that had been seized by the banks.
A few years later, the Davis’ were able to buy the newly reforested land from the banks. Henry and his grandfather returned to the hill.
“I remember holding his thumb,” said Mr. Davis, nearly 80 years later, “and he told me that someday, you’re going to have to take care of all of these trees. That stuck in my head that from that point, I was supposed to take care of trees.”
The now 86-year-old Davis has spent his lifetime doing just that — working on trees in the Boston area, first as a businessman, but increasingly, as a conservationist.
At age 10, Henry Davis moved to Boston. The family property had several large elm trees. Dutch elm disease arrived in America on imported timber around 1928.
“I used to love to pull the spray hose around and help the men spray the trees to protect against the disease. That gave me interest in that particular company, which I eventually joined up with.”
As a teenager in 1944, Mr. Davis jumped at the opportunity to help the company prune the oldest trees on the Boston Common. He spent a day scrambling below huge elms, some of them originally planted by John Hancock, clearing fallen branches off of Beacon Street. The trees on the common have been under his care ever since.
Mr. Davis eventually bought the company, and by the 1960’s was a successful business man and arborist. After selling his company, he joined the Friends of the Public Garden. For decades he has represented the interests of the trees, donating his time and knowledge to the protection and maintenance of the Boston Common, Public Garden, and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.
His expertise and hard work was instrumental in staving off the ravages of Dutch elm disease in the 60’s and 70’s. Mr. Davis says it was his business background that enabled him to get things done, to navigate Boston’s bureaucracy on behalf of Boston’s treasured trees. “That was an era were you sometimes had to buy somebody a nice bottle of scotch to get things done,” he said.
Mr. Davis now lives with his wife of nearly 60 years on a high bluff overlooking the ocean in Brooklin Maine. He returns to Boston in the spring for a few months every year, and in 2014 he’ll be just in time. When The Friends of the Public Garden dedicated his plaque, Mayor Thomas Menino proclaimed April 26th Henry Davis Day in the City of Boston.
“I’ve never charged for my time since the 1960’s,” Mr. Davis said, “The Common is important. There are only a few ancient trees left and others I’ve seen grow from nothing. Maintaining the trees is quite an experience, people can see the Common grow their whole life.”