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KC's Champion of Trees

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Published on: Dec. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 27, 2010

If you fly over Kansas City or just find some high ground and look out over the city, one thing that strikes you is the green of trees that go on forever.

Few people deserve more credit for this sight than Chuck Brasher, who has spent the better part of his life championing the planting, tending and preservation of trees in greater Kansas City. If trees can be counted as part of the city's quality of life, Brasher's efforts are no less important than those of the architects and planners who gave the city its famed boulevards, fountains and other landmarks.

Brasher's mark can be seen in the oaks, maples and other varieties he himself has sunk into the ground. Residents followed in his footsteps in planting and nursing many more trees to towering heights.

While trees kept Brasher in steady work as the owner of Country Club Tree Service for well over 30 years, it's clear he has a special affection for everything from persimmons to pines.

"It's quite a thing to get to work with trees," he says quietly. "I probably will until the day I die."

That affection dates back to his childhood near Stockton. At just 15, three years shy of the qualifying age, he signed up with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It took a special letter from then Gov. Lloyd C. Stark to get him in. The one condition was that he had to attend school.

"When I wasn't in school, I'd go out with the crews working on reforestation and erosion control," Brasher recalls of his CCC days spent in the vicinity of Bowling Green. "We'd plant trees and put in terraces and diversion ditches."

It was his first real experience with trees, but even then something told him they would be his life's work.

After a stint in the Army during World War II took him to China and Burma, he moved to Kansas City. He took courses in horticulture and botany.

Kansas City's Forestry Department hired the young arborist, and he served three years as assistant city forester and one year as city forester. He pushed for better training of the forestry staff responsible for tending trees lining city streets and other areas.

Brasher went on to start his tree service in 1958 with his wife, Grace, as a partner. He was building a reputation as a knowledgeable arborist who kept up on the latest care and treatment methods. In those early years he often worked seven days a week trimming trees and warding off diseases and pests afflicting homeowners' trees in metropolitan Kansas City.

Perhaps his biggest nemesis was the devastating spread of the Dutch elm disease. Kansas City's streets and parkways were home to an estimated 125,000 American elms. Many more existed on private property. "It was the ideal tree for street planting," Brasher remarks. The crowns of full grown trees would touch and seem to envelop a street in foliage. "It was like driving through a tunnel," he remembers.

The elm was an ideal food source for the elm bark beetle, a native of Europe and the carrier of the disease. Females laid their eggs under the bark. When the eggs hatched out, the young would move to other trees to feed, infecting them with the fungus. A tree's one defense was to shut off the flow of sap, which also kept it from taking up water and nutrients. In time, the elms withered and died. "The trees were so close together along the streets it went down the block like dominoes," Brasher says.

Early on, about all arborists like Brasher could do was cut down the dead elms. Then fungicides came along, but the mechanisms for injecting them into trees were crude at best. In the late 1950s Brasher rigged up an injection system that relied on a small air compressor to keep the pressure constant. In time, the fungicides and the system improved and the spread of the tree plague slowed. Still, it wiped out well over half of the city's American elms.

Brasher was quickly acquiring an almost encyclopedic knowledge of trees. He was careful to take note of the experiences of others in his field. Perhaps most influential was Stanley R. McLane, the landscape supervisor for the J.C. Nichols Co., developer of the Country Club Plaza shopping district and residential areas. McLane, 25 years Brasher's senior, did what he could to pass along a lifetime of knowledge about trees and plants.

Brasher also inherited one other important thing from McLane. It was his list of the city's 100 champion trees, the largest of their kind by girth, height and crown spread. McLane prepared his first list in 1955, but he never revised it. Brasher tucked the list away and there it lay for several years.

"One winter day around 1962 I was going through my file and I ran across it and I started checking some of these trees," Brasher recalls. "When I checked all 100 trees, there were only 44 or 45 left. They were taken out for various reasons - development, disease, storms, lightning."

Indeed, time and progress were taking their toll. With the help of many others, he set out to update the inventory. The list covered Jackson and Clay counties in Missouri and Johnson and Wyandotte on the Kansas side. Each arboreal giant was verified and tagged as a champion. By 1990, the list included some 140 specimens. One of them was a former national champion rock elm, with a girth of more than 11 feet and a height of 110 feet, originally tagged by McLane.

The list was more than just a pastime for a band of tree lovers. "I know three or four different times when people have contacted me after seeing the label and it saved the tree," Brasher remarks. "Once contractors building an apartment complex found a sugar maple that was over 100 years old. They moved the building to save the tree."

In 1972, about a year after McLane died, Brasher helped establish an arboretum to honor him. It was to be a showplace for trees in the heart of the city. With Brasher as their first chairman, arboretum supporters settled on Loose Park as the location.

Thousands of residents visit the lush park each year. Joggers, picnickers and bird watchers are just a few of those who enjoy its solitude and greenery. Arboretum supporters have added hundreds of trees to the park's rolling landscape.

The Loose Park arboretum was aptly where some of the city's best-known green thumbs gathered in the summer of 1996 for a ceremony to honor the soft-spoken Brasher. Included in the crowd was Conservation Department urban forester Jerry Monterastelli, who told onlookers that Brasher became his mentor when he first came to the city more than 20 years ago.

Well wishers planted a swamp white oak sapling, Brasher's favorite among trees in the park, in his honor. "Quercus bicolor," Brasher called out as he admired the sapling. It wasn't a boastful show of knowledge. He just wanted to hear the tree's lyrical Latin species name said aloud.

Just as he was about to begin shoveling dirt on to the sapling, Brasher looked at the mound already on it. "It's too much soil for this tree," he said to no one in particular. A good tree man couldn't let such a thing go by - even with a large crowd looking on.

Now in semi-retirement, Brasher remains an advocate for trees. Developers in greater Kansas City call on him for advice on saving or replacing trees at construction sites. In this way he has influenced a number of developments, including some upscale building projects.

As he drives around the city, Brasher still sees building sites where every tree in sight has been dozed down and stacked like cord wood. Still, he finds it encouraging that some are taking a more enlightened approach. "Some developers are setting an example for others of how to do it right," he says.

Once you get to know Brasher, you learn that over the years he's influenced everyone from homeowners to public officials. And he has used that clout to drive home a message that he's honed down to a simple adage: "Only God can make a tree, but he put us here as custodians."

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