Eucalyptus grove dying off

Century-old trees near Merced College

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comDecember 5, 2012 

— One of Merced's oldest and largest landmarks is also one of its lesser-known, but the 100-year-old icon is slowly dying off.

Many have seen the eucalyptus grove along M Street near Merced College, but few know of its history as one of the last remaining remnants of the historic Bellevue Ranch that once dominated the area.

Elmer Murchie, who managed the Bellevue Ranch, had the trees planted surrounding the site.

They were meant to be harvested for fence posts and furniture, but when the wood proved too brittle for those uses, the trees were left in place mainly to provide shade, serve as a windbreak and be used as a living fence.

Sally Willson, Murchie's daughter, lives in Atwater. She said she used to visit the ranch when she was a child and would travel through the eucalyptus trees to go swimming in the ranch pool on hot summer days.

"That is the last remaining thing of the Bellevue Ranch is those trees," she said, adding that much has changed in the area since she was a kid, making it hard to tell exactly where parts of the ranch were.

"It's very difficult now because of all the homes," Willson said. "Many homes are over the ranch proper."

Sarah Lim, director of the Merced County Courthouse Museum, said the grove was planted in 1912 and has grown into a historical landmark in Merced.

The grove used to be thicker, with hundreds of eucalyptus trees surrounding the ranch, but many were lost to disease and development, Lim said.

Scaling down

Merced Mayor Stan Thurston said the city tries to keep the eucalyptus trees healthy because of their aesthetic value and historical significance, but noted that some of their grandeur's been scaled back in recent years.

"We have to keep cutting branches off and taking whole trees down because they just become a danger," he said.

Sometimes, the trees simply die, Thurston added. Drought's been hard on the aging grove.

There has been talk about replacing the row of eucalyptus trees with another species, he said. But with a tight budget, it isn't likely that the city will make that move anytime soon.

"They're not the healthiest around," he said. "Everybody knows that someday they'll have to be replaced with something."

Jack Willson, Sally Willson's husband, said the row of eucalyptus trees has suffered from a lack of water in recent years. And while the buzzards that roost in them may be a nuisance to some, the trees serve some good, just as they did 100 years ago.

Others who worked on or visited the ranch noted there were other benefits to the shady trees, but in their 100-year lifespan, many have been lost to a changing Merced.

Before he died, Murchie told the Sun-Star that despite the trees failing to live up to many of the ranch's expectations, he still found beauty in them and the fowl that gathered in their greenery.

"You can't help but admire them and you can't help but enjoy the life that lived in them," Murchie said. "But they were a darned nuisance!"

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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