Revolutionary War soldiers are buried beneath its shade. The tree stood when settlers bought the land from a Native American chief in 1717. A community was built around this tree.
“It’s been here about 600 years, and about 300 years ago a little log cabin church was built under it for settlers and an entire town was built up around that church beside that tree,” said Dennis Jones, the pastor at Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church in New Jersey.
A 600-year-old white oak tree has been central to what some call a “Norman Rockwell-esque” town, Basking Ridge, where police officer’s uniforms bear the town’s oak leaf insignia, and now the community prepares to say its goodbyes.
The tree ultimately succumbed to the effects of its urban surroundings, according to lead arborist on the project, Rob Gillies. Like a house plant that outgrows its pot, the extensive roots of the great white oak could no longer sustain themselves at the community’s center. The roots’ growth is blocked by the cemetery inhabitants and there are no neighboring trees to support it, Gillies said.
“The fact that it survived this long is remarkable.”
A team of arborists and ancient tree experts contracted by the Oak Street church began assessing potential ways to save the tree last March, when it stopped growing leaves.
The oak could not withstand the summer heat. In July, a hot spell caused the white oak to stop ridding itself of water through its leaves. The process, known as evapotranspiration, is necessary to an oak’s survival during rainstorms, Gillies said.
After the heat, a 12-hour downpour flooded the tree’s roots. No longer able to retain water in the heat, the remaining foliage died, sealing the tree’s fate, said Gillies, who gets emotional about his team’s inability to save the historical piece of nature.
“It’s one of those things that no one can ever remember it not being here. It’s so much a part of the fabric, identity, energy of our community,” Jones said.
Tradition has it that Gen. George Washington and his soldiers often rested under the oak in the cemetery when they rode form their headquarters in Morristown to Pluckemin, where some of the Colonial artillery were stationed, said George Fricke, 88 and the church historian.
Removing the historic icon will not be quick and simple. The task force estimates the cumbersome process will cost more than $40,000. The Historical Society of the Somerset Hills stepped in to aid in funding the endeavor, creating a GoFundMe page that’s raised over $500 in the first three days.
The church’s oak tree task force scheduled the disassembly process to begin early in 2017, which coincidentally commences the 300th anniversary year of the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church.
Until then, community members will commemorate every last minute they have left. The town will come together in celebration of the life of the oak tree on November 6, which appropriately falls on All Souls weekend for the Christian faith.
Looking toward the future, the church community is deliberating what will succeed the iconic symbol in the cemetery yard. All the tree’s wood is being saved, according to task force chairman Jon Klippel.
Hundreds of ideas for repurposing and memorializing the remnants have been pouring in from around the world, Klippel said, from as far as India and Ireland.
A Texas-based guitar maker offered an instrument from the wood to the church; wood carvers similarly have offered biblical statues and carvings, Klippel said.
The community aims to have completed whatever possibility comes to fruition in time for the church anniversary celebrations in June.