NEWBURY — It was a honey locust — the kind of broad, deciduous tree with leaves that turn mellow yellow in autumn.
For 23 years, the tree — planted in memory of the late Maude Ryan, a dedicated member of Byfield Community United Methodist Church — grew on town-owned land at the intersection of Moody and Main streets.
The Rev. Russell “Rusty” Davis, who at one time led Sunday School classes for first- and second-graders at the Byfield church, was instrumental in organizing the memorial tree dedication. Davis grew up in Byfield and has served as chaplain of the Newbury Fire Department for 20 years.
That September morning back in 1990, he and a handful of others, including his young students, walked the quarter-mile down the road from the church to the intersection to oversee the planting of the honey locust, donated by the former Cherry Hill Nursery in West Newbury specifically for the occasion.
So imagine Davis’ surprise when he recently discovered that the tree was unceremoniously pulled out from its roots.
“Since when is the Town of Newbury in the business of taking down memorial landmarks?” Davis, who now serves as pastor of the Methodist churches in Newburyport and Salisbury, asked in a recent posting on Facebook.
But town officials say the demise of the tree is one of several changes that residents can expect as traffic safety improvements are implemented in Byfield Center.
Town planner Martha Taylor said the intersections at Moody, Main and Church streets, at Lunt and Main streets by the Mini Mart and at Central and Church streets were all identified as hazards in a road safety audit conducted in May 2010.
“Every intersection will have to change,” Selectman Chuck Bear said.
The audit, which was commissioned in response to safety concerns from some Byfield residents, involved representatives from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the transportation planning firm Howard/Stein-Hudson as well as transportation staff from the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission.
In addition to recommending the reconfiguration of the intersections, the audit suggested ways to calm traffic in certain areas and make other types of improvements, Taylor said.
But the loss of the memorial tree isn’t sitting well with Davis, who said he was “devastated” to learn it was gone, especially given that the intersection where it was planted has a long relationship with iconic trees in town.
Prior to the arrival of the honey locust, a maple tree had stood for years in the same spot. The maple was planted by an earlier group of Sunday School students from the Byfield Methodist church. The maple became known as the Moody Street Tree and grew into a familiar and cherished landmark.
It was under the Moody Street Tree that Byfield children, including Davis, gathered every weekday morning to wait for the school bus. Back then, the Byfield section of Newbury was known as Dogtown because it was one of few places locally without a leash law, so dogs were free to romp around, Davis said.
As Davis remembers it, all the Dogtown kids climbed that maple tree “until they wore it out.” He admitted that sometimes he and his pals scrambled high enough up the tree that the bus driver couldn’t see them and drove on past to the delight of the youngsters, who then enjoyed an impromptu holiday from classes.
Eventually, when it became diseased, the Moody Street Tree was replaced by the honey locust.
Davis now is looking to right the wrong and has found a local landscaping company to donate a new tree — a red maple — to be planted at the same site. He would invite everyone who attended the original tree planting in 1990 back for the replanting ceremony. And this time around, he’ll include a plaque to serve as a reminder that the tree is a memorial landmark. He plans to contact selectmen soon about his idea and, if necessary, will organize a citizens’ petition drive to see his plan through.
But Bear said that because the site has to be reconfigured into a T-intersection, no more trees can be planted there.
The safety changes are required if the town wants to access much-needed federal and state funding for road improvements, he said.
The town tapped state Chapter 90 funds to hire HSH to develop a 25 percent design package for the recommended improvements. Several public meetings were held during the design process, and the preliminary design plan was completed in February 2012, Taylor said. The plan is available for public review in the Planning Board office at Town Hall.
While the town is poised to submit a Chapter 90 request for funds to do the work, Taylor said “nothing is going to happen in the immediate future.” A MassWorks grant that the town applied for last September was not approved, she said.
Although Bear understands Davis’ disappointment, he said that more residents seek to plant trees on town property than can be accommodated. Most recently, selectmen have grappled over if and where to plant an evergreen donated for the Upper Green by Patti Ross Webster in memory of her late father, David Ross.
It’s not that Bear doesn’t have a sentimental attachment to the Dogtown tree either. The 60-year-old Bear admitted he was “one of those Dogtown kids” who swung on the limbs of the Moody Street Tree while waiting for the school bus all those year ago.
But did he ever play hooky by dangling up in the treetops?
“I plead the Fifth,” he responded.