The First Stone
By Steve Rideout
The lichen have had 99 years to work on Howard’s stone though family cared for it at least until Ede, his oldest sister and last of the Banister clan, joined him 60 years later. In heartbreaking sadness from a life cut too short, the stone set the family standard in their Cedar Lawn plot. Simple, just the facts. Howard, 1888 – 1913 his birth and death years etched below his given name.
It was a pleasant Sunday morning motorcycle ride on the North Haven road for the 25 year old recently engaged Howard Banister. But something went wrong, terribly wrong. “Automobile and Motorcycle Collide on North Haven – ONE MAN KILLED” cried the Sag Harbor Express in Thursday’s weekly. What the public read already haunted the Banister family for four days. Consolation is an absent tonic for the loss of such a bright young star portrayed in the press as the responsible party.
Howard, like older brother Jud, inherited a strong affinity for all things mechanical, including steam engines from his father Charles. Charles operated the first steam fire engine in Potsdam, the Banister home town, and built many of the early steam engines powering boats on the St. Lawrence River. But like his older sister Ede, younger sister Stella and big brother Jud, Howard moved to East Hampton in the early years of the new and exciting 20th Century to use these skills working for various businesses. The East Hampton Ice Company hired him as a plant fireman in 1908, and less than a year later he went to New York City as a motor-man on one of the surface lines. He could find work anywhere.
But his real passion remained on the South Fork. The trees. The gorgeous trees, especially East Hampton’s elms. He was not alone in his love for these magnificent sentinels of the town’s Main and nearby streets. In full bloom, the canopy wrapped Main Street in its strong arms capturing the hearts of newcomers and old-timers alike.
A small photo album left by Howard and two basketball team pictures fleshed out his too truncated life. He filled the black paper stock pages of the seven by ten inch album with photographs taken from 1910 to 1912. The middle year, 1911, was key, however. The pictures captured him and his 30 classmates attending the Davey School of Forestry in Kent, Ohio.
John Davey founded the Davey Tree Expert Company in 1880 and by the new century was regarded as one of the nation’s top tree surgeons developing and using the latest scientific advances for care. The Ladies Village Improvement Society actively sought Davey’s expertise to protect against Dutch Elm Disease and treat sick trees standing guard along Main and other prominent Village streets. Howard embraced the tree’s kinship with the Village and took his passion to Kent, Ohio joining the class of 1911.
The latest scientific advances were taught during classes in the two story brick building in downtown Kent. New techniques were put into practice at the school’s outside laboratory on the banks of the Chemung River near Elmira, New York. Summertime photos show Howard, biceps as big as many tree limbs he climbed, and his classmates excavating rotten wood from diseased trees. Larger cavities were filled with concrete, state of the art at the time. Training complete by fall he returned to beautiful and beloved East Hampton.
Within a year, his new skills rescued one of Main Street’s prominent elms fronting Clinton Hall and another bordering the Payne house. “Our Local Forester” headlined a note in the Star’s September 27, 1912 edition describing his work and praising the town’s good fortune to have such talent able to preserve such prized assets. Later they ran a picture of Howard standing on the concrete filled cavity of the Clinton Hall tree with a Brooklyn Eagle story declaring “One cannot blame East Hampton residents for taking unusual steps to preserve these fine old elms. The street on which they flourish is one of the widest and prettiest…in the entire state.” Howard’s talents did not go unnoticed and by the end of 1912 he was caring for trees on a large North Haven estate.