November 24, 2021

Echoes from past voices

Students Nadine Daigneault, left, and Caden
Roy were the winners in a contest to
accurately guess the age of the ash tree on
the grounds of Jordan-Small Middle School
By Charles Martin

Special to The Windham Eagle

It was a favorite weekend ride for my wife and me. The weekend trip took us through Webb Mills, past the Jordan-Small School, and into Windham.

It was here that our trip culminated, with the purchase of a car full of groceries from Hannaford To Go, the only local store offering the service at the time. One of the landmarks on the trip that always drew my attention was the Jordan-Small Middle School, a quaint, small intimate middle school with grounds that would match any in the state of Maine, thanks to Tom Gumble, groundskeeper for the school.

I told my wife, on numerous occasions, that I would someday teach at that middle school, and after a 35-year stint in the Oxford Hills School District, I pulled stakes and headed out for that adventure that awaits us around each corner.

I have not been disappointed in my move, as the school has lived up to what I imagined it to be. It is a very innocent, and laid back, a place where learning is fun, and one person’s problem becomes everyone's problem. I park each day in the lower lot, and my path into the school takes me by an old green ash tree, one that always captures my attention and in an odd way speaks to me with echoes from voices of the past.

Only a true naturalist can relate to what I am saying. The tree does not actually talk to me, but if you listen closely a mutual connection can be made. After kicking my way through the pile of fallen ash leaves while entering and exiting the school, I decided it was time to give that tree the attention it was seeking from me. I decided that determining the age of the tree was the best start in forming that relationship.

With guidance from Tom Gumble and Bill Nehez, the daytime custodian, I researched boring techniques in which tree rings can be counted to give the accurate age of a tree. With the Ash Borer being a real concern in the state, we decided that to bore the tree might cause undue stress which ultimately could cause death to the tree.

This is a chance we could not take. We therefore took an alternate route and used mathematics to get an approximate, but fairly accurate age. With the help of my students, we measured the circumference of the tree, 5 feet up from the ground and divided this number by Pi to calculate the diameter.

Each tree has a researched growth rate which is then multiplied by the diameter to give you your final answer. Tree growth rates vary from species to species, with the lower growth rates found in trees with slower growth rates.

After creating a schoolwide contest for guessing the age of the tree, two students, Nadine Daigneault and Caden Roy, were the winners, both guessing 156 years of age.

With the age calculated, we subtracted the age from 2021 and determined that the tree germinated in 1864.

By the way, in that year, in the world, Charles Dickens survived a rail crash, Kent, England, in which 10 others were killed. Nationally, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and within the state, the University of Maine, Orono was established. At the local level, Raymond reached a school population of 499 students and rattlesnakes, and panthers still roamed the local terrain.

A story related to me by school secretary Kerry Glew, that most intrigued me, was about one of the grantors of the land, Frances Small, who would travel by horse through the woods to Gray to teach music classes each week. She would set out on a Sunday night and return Friday evenings, a trip she made alone through the vast woods and waterways on a regular basis.

In relationship to the tree, those echoes from voices in the past shared with me that many classes over the years were held under the tree, with kids often times sitting on one particularly long branch that has since succumbed to the ice storm back in 1998. Class pictures were taken by the tree as students graduated from one school to the next.

An interesting note is Echoes from past voices that the tree has a slight bend to it as a result of the ice storm which has altered its growth pattern permanently.

Other stories that I have received from the tree are eye opening and amusing at the same time. Stories include snow drifts so high that kids snowmobiled off the roof of the school. A year-round bin placed in the back of the school yard provided farmers left over food from the school cafeteria, to feed their pigs. A common occurrence at the school was community suppers where students would decorate the tables with flowers and homemade placemats.

Ernie Knight, a resident who taught at Gould Academy, would entertain people after the supper by riding his unicycle around the parking lot to the delight of all present. In the early 1970s, a skunk unleashed its scent so strongly, that school had to be canceled for the day, a story that made its way to the Today Show.

Someday when you drive by, I hope you take the time to at the very least take a gander at the beautiful tree, but if time permits possibly take a stroll around it. Better yet, sit under it and listen closely, as you might also hear those echoes from voices past.

As I near my retirement date, you may see me outside with my kids, jumping into a pile of leaves from that special “wolf” tree or catching falling leaves during a warm autumn day. If so, I truly have captured the simple life that will usher me into retirement.

Note: In an attempt to preserve the rich history of Jordan-Small Middle School, I would love to receive any stories about school life, past and present regarding the school, so that they may be recorded for posterity’s sake. Please send stories to:

A special thanks to Bill Nehez, Tom Gumble and Kerry Glew for help with this project. <

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