Out on a Limb

BY Susan Taylor Block

born in Wilmington in 1885 Louis T. Moore was educated in local schools and at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill where he was a corresponding journalist wrote for The Daily Tar Heel and served as “Chief Cheerer” for athletic events. He returned to Wilmington in 1906 and became City Editor of the Wilmington Dispatch. Due to an earlier bout with polio that left9 him with a paralyzed foot Moore remained in Wilmington during World War I. On June 1 1921 he was named executive secretary of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce where for two decades he served as “Chief Cheerer” for his beloved hometown. From the time of his retirement in 1941 until his death in 1961 he continued to research promote and protect his hometown.

As longtime Wilmington Chamber of Commerce director he promoted the sleepy North Carolina port by waging campaigns to further the regional economy. He worked with local authorities and businesses to deepen the Cape Fear River channel dredge an Intracoastal Waterway link improve connecting corridors and build the citys first river bridge. Through his speeches voluminous correspondence and national magazine articles he recruited businesses to the area. His efforts helped existing institutions too like maritime shipping companies and the mighty Atlantic Coast Line Railroad headquartered in Wilmington throughout his career.

While Moore focused his business acumen on preserving the areas legacy of commercial strength the poet within studied and celebrated its various natural wonders like no one had before him. Many of the thousand panoramic photographs he took from 1921 to 1939 capture southeastern North Carolinas lush environment.

oore had a lifelong love and fascination with trees that was probably engendered during his years at Chapel Hill when legendary tree enthusiast Dr. William Chambers Coker was laying the groundwork for the University of North Carolinas Coker Arboretum. Moores interest also sprang from his sensitivity towards natural beauty that colored his career green long before the word took on its present meaning. He became a pioneer in conservation.

Though trees would become his focus other living treasures caught his eye too. The most unusual specimen was the carnivorous Venus Flytrap which he photographed and championed long before measures were taken for its protection. His steady efforts helped fuel a Cape Fear Garden Club drive during the 1950s to outlaw commercial sales of the plant. He also wrote about the beauty of daffodils camellias and azaleas but it was the subject of cutting down trees that caused him to become inflamed.

If anything other than an act of nature felled one of them Moore had a tendency to spew words like a sawmill discharging wood chips. Trees were far more than regal beauty and grace to him. They marked time for us as humans and were community heirlooms. The oldest trees are silent witnesses to centuries of change drama and sometimes mindless development. A precious few seem to become characters in the tale of the Lower Cape Fear.

Moore celebrated and protected trees throughout southeastern North Carolina the trees of Orton Plantation Greenfield Lake Gardens Oakdale Cemetery and Airlie Gardens as well as the Dram Tree and the Worlds Largest Living Christmas Tree to name a few.

His loudest longest tree campaign came about in an unsuccessful effort to save hundreds of live oaks that graced Wilmingtons downtown avenues.

By the late 1940s Third Street a leg of U. S. Highway 421 still boasted some grand oaks but heavy oil tanker traffic and a grid of utility poles had further compromised their aesthetic contributions. Moore and his allies called the byway “Gasoline Alley” and “South Pole Street.” Market Street an intersecting east-west corridor was another proverbial tree-lined boulevard until city fathers voted to widen it and this raised Moores ire as well.

Moore and a handful of fellow progressive thinkers went on the warpath. “I remember how upset daddy was when they cut down the pretty trees in the plaza on S. Third Street and Market Street ” said Moores daughter Peggy M. Perdew in 2008. “I thought he was going to have a stroke. One of mothers friends watched him talking about this occasion and said it was just like witnessing the eruption of Mt. Etna.”

Operating as chairman of the New Hanover County Historical Society Moore went before a joint meeting of the NC Highway Commission and Wilmington City Council to protest. He called the officials “dictators ” and accused them of having “no interest in the community” as a large crowd cheered him. Moore said their disregard for trees was turning South Third Street into a utility pole graveyard.

Moore who wasnt nicknamed “Bully” for nothing continued to chide the councilmen by distributing the following “anonymous” poem (with apologies to poet Joyce Kilmer).

“I think that I shall never see

A Councilman who loves a tree.

Trees whose beauty add renown

To the fair name of our town.

For years theyve stood through sun and rain

Yet for their life we plead in vain.

Well only God can make a tree

But Councilmen are picked by fools like me.”

Louis T. Moore turned 64 in 1949 a year in which he spent volunteer civic service hours learning what other cities were doing to address the problem of unnecessary tree removal. As a veteran researcher and freelance journalist he had a wide network of contacts and soon discovered that Charleston had paid $3 300 to save the “Ashley Avenue Oak ” a 300-year-old tree that would die of old age 24 years later. He also publicized the fact that New York City was going on the tree offense by encouraging tree plantings. Eight trees had recently been planted at Rockefeller Center and the idea captured Moores imagination. He later suggested that the Wilmington City Council begin celebrating an annual “Tree Planting Week ” and form a tree commission to “protect existing trees and to establish a program of a tree planted for every one removed.”

Moore continued his fight against what he called “horticultural murder” throughout his golden years with his most dramatic battle occurring in 1950. Accompanied by friends who shared his love for the look of old Wilmington Wallace Murchison Burke H. Bridgers and U. B. Ellis Moore engaged in a two-hour battle with City Council that became “hot and personal.” A large audience applauded loudly every time Moore scored a point for trees and they clapped like thunder when he accused the officials of “out-Stalining Stalin!”

Despite everyones efforts 500 to 1 000 live oaks that ranged from mature to stately were ruthlessly felled from 1945 through 1950 along Third and Market streets in order to widen the roadbeds for increased traffic. Moores requests for the development of alternate routes were barely acknowledged. Rerouting commercial traffic alone could have saved the trees for another 30 years. “One is forced to speculate what other places in the U.S. would have permitted such wholesale demolition of trees ” wrote Moore to a local newspaper editor.

Then in 1958 city government systematically destroyed an additional 600 trees following Hurricane Helenes near miss on September 26. Wind gusts up to 160 miles per hour and eight inches of rain had toppled many long-standing stalwarts and the city manager subsequently ordered the demolition simply because he did not want to deal with downed utility lines in the event of another hurricane. “Many homes were without power of communication. It caused a tremendous inconvenience ” was all the city manager could say in defense of his actions.

Louis T. Moores last epic battle as a tree saver occurred in 1959. Grand live oaks that stood along Market Street north of downtown where the grand Kenan Houses mark the entrance to Carolina Heights were in danger. The gracious two-lane street would eventually be compressed into the present four-lane road but thanks to Moore and many others after him at least some of the live oaks survived. Moore decried the plan and called for a city-ordained conservation program to protect existing trees and to establish a replanting program to make up for those already destroyed.

“The simple fact that New York City is now planting 1 800 trees along its principal avenues costing approximately $100 each furnishes a splendid example which Wilmington well could follow with a program of replacement ” he told the mayor and City Council members. “This is in rather marked and decided contrast with the oft-repeated information seen in our local press: Trees Will Be Removed. Trees are a God-given asset which require a century to mature and which can be destroyed within a half hour when there is a plan to do so.”

Moore undoubtedly made a difference. The trees that remain on Third Street and along Market Street stand in part because of his efforts. He raised awareness and effected a change in attitude toward preserving these important sentinels. By influencing the actions of those in power and of social prominence he prevented further loss of these arboreal resources and secured their place of importance in the coastal city.

Acknowledgments: Original editor: Robert Hill Camp. Photos: Katherine Meier Cameron; New Hanover County Public Library (Beverly Tetterton and Joseph Sheppard); NC Archives (Kim Cumber); Terri Hudgins Cape Fear Museum.

Sources: Block. Wilmington Through the Lens of Louis T. Moore 2001 Moore Louis T. Stories Old and New of the Cape Fear Region. Wilmington 1956.