Former longtime employee honored during chestnut tree planting

On his first day of working for the Hayes family in 1948, Ralph Billow planted two trees at Spiegel Grove, the estate of President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Nearly six decades later, Billow planted two American chestnut trees on Friday at Spiegel Grove in the same area where President Hayes, in 1873, had planted five, which are no longer there.

“I’ve come full circle now,” said Billow, 87. “I’m so happy to be able to plant a majestic tree back here.”

The Hayes Presidential Library & Museums named one of the trees in Billow’s honor during the tree-planting ceremony on Friday. Billow worked for the Hayes descendants, who lived in the Hayes Home until 1965, as a gardener and chauffer. He then served as the buildings and grounds superintendent at the Hayes Presidential Library & Museums until 1992.

Billow and his wife, Juanita, and family remain active with the Hayes Presidential Library & Museums. Billow serves on the Buildings and Grounds Committee and is a source of vast knowledge about the historic property.

The Hayes Presidential Library & Museums had planned to plant the trees on a hill at the back of Spiegel Grove, but Billow pointed out that the trees President Hayes planted were on the southeast side of the property. Thanks to his knowledge, the new trees were planted in that location.

Billow worked with the American Chestnut Foundation to obtain the trees, which the foundation donated.

American chestnuts were once very prevalent around the United States and grew 100 feet tall and 10 to 12 feet wide, said Carolyn Keiffer, Ph.D., and president of the Ohio chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation.

“Some folks called them the redwoods of the east,” she said.

In the early 1900s, an invasive fungus nearly wiped out the American chestnuts. The American Chestnut Foundation has been working to bring back the trees and has crossbred American chestnuts with Chinese chestnuts that are resistant to the fungus.

The two small trees planted at Spiegel Grove are these kinds of crossbred trees, and they are expected to be very similar to traditional American chestnuts, Keiffer said.

“These are state-of-the-art chestnuts right now,” she said.

President Hayes loved trees, and he recorded what he planted at Spiegel Grove in a diary he called “Our Home,” said Christie Weininger, executive director of the Hayes Presidential Library & Museums. He often honored people who he felt made a difference in the world by naming a tree for them at Spiegel Grove and inviting them to a ceremony where they would plant the tree and place their hands on it.

Hayes descendants continued that tradition. Billow attended many of the ceremonies organized by the Hayes descendants, including the 1950 ceremony where a tree was named for World War II Admiral Chester Nimitz.

John Bell, buildings and grounds superintendent at the Hayes Presidential Library & Museums, talked about working for Billow for 15 years and being his friend for 40.

“When I started working here, he said ‘we take what God does, and we gently shape it,’” Bell said. “He did that for me. I’m still learning from him. The man is an incredible wealth of information about so many things.”

The Hayes Presidential Library & Museums is America’s first presidential library and the forerunner for the federal presidential library system. It is partially funded by the state of Ohio and affiliated with the Ohio History Connection. The Hayes Presidential Library & Museums is located at Spiegel Grove at the corner of Hayes and Buckland avenues.

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