Scythe Tree.

Scythe Tree

Field review by the editors.

Waterloo, New York

Waterloo bills itself as the Birthplace of Memorial Day.* For a town that stakes its reputation on memory, most of its residents seem to have forgotten The Scythe Tree.

*(Other towns that claim to be the Birthplace of Memorial Day include Boalsburg, PA; Carbondale, IL; Petersburg, VA; and both Columbus, GA, and Columbus, MS. None have scythe trees.)

In 1861, according to the plaque at the foot of the tree, "James Wyman Johnson came from the fields one morning, hung his scythe in the crotch of a small cottonwood tree, and said, 'Leave the scythe in the tree until I return'." Then Johnson went off to fight for the Union in the Civil War.

In 1864, Johnson abandoned his scythe forever when he died in a Confederate hospital after a skirmish in Plymouth, North Carolina. His parents never accepted the report of his death, and left the scythe in the tree for a homecoming that never happened.

Scythe Tree postcard.

A half century later, in 1918, brothers Raymond and Lynn Schaffe enlisted to fight in the U.S. Navy during World War I. They left their scythes in the same tree. The Schaffes came back (it was a shorter war) but apparently neither of them remembered to retrieve their scythes.

The tree grew and slowly engulfed the scythe blades as their wooden handles fell off. The Scythe Tree became a Waterloo landmark, then a tourist attraction. Linen postcards were printed and sold, artfully highlighted to emphasize the scythes.

The Scythe Tree still stands on the front lawn of the Scythe Tree Farm. Rusted scythe blades stick out of its trunk, now eight or ten feet in the air, supported by wires tied to the branches. Each blade tip has been painted to make it easier to spot.

Curiously, this isn't the only tree assigned to hold a scythe for eternity. There are others around the U.S., although none have been immortalized on a postcard like the one in Waterloo. A scythe tree in Merengo, Iowa, for example, held the Civil War scythe of farmer Richard Shelley until the tree fell over in a 1998 windstorm.

(Mickey Hormann writes that he's a descendant of Richard Shelley, and that the Merengo scythe now resides in Merengo's Pioneer Heritage Museum, 675 E. South St.)

Unless civilization takes a large step backward, there won't be any new scythe trees. Perhaps the shoe tree is the modern equivalent. "Leave my cross-trainers in the tree until I return!"

Scythe Tree close-up.

Update: Sheila Lorenz writes: "I was the owner of the farm for seven years. I researched every bit of history on my tree. That is our truck in the pic that was taken. The scythe point is the only thing that still remains, and then it is only about one inch showing. The wooden part of the scythe grew into the tree and probably is deteriorated inside the tree."

Scythe Tree

US Hwy. 20, Waterloo, NY
2-3 miles west of Waterloo on Hwy 5/US 20 (Waterloo Geneva Rd), between Brewer and Packwood Rds. North side, just west of the state police station. Difficult to see heading west.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Birthplace of Memorial DayBirthplace of Memorial Day, Waterloo, NY - 2 mi.
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Mike Weaver Drain Tile MuseumMike Weaver Drain Tile Museum, Geneva, NY - 3 mi.
In the region:
Site of First Ice Cream Sundae, Ithaca, NY - 38 mi.

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