By Rich Christianson
Not many trees have a feature-length documentary made about their life. Nor do many trees have a website dedicated to them. But the massive white oak that once stood guard over the cemetery next to the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church was no ordinary tree. It died in 2017 at the ripe old age of 619. At the time of its demise it was the oldest known white oak in America.
I first became aware of the landmark tree from a March 12 article clipped from the Star Ledger newspaper, a souvenir from my wife’s trip to Basking Ridge, NJ, to visit her sister. The headline immediately caught my urban wood eye: “Everyone wants a piece of the oak.”
The lead sentence put an exclamation point on my interest, “Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church officials will wait to see the quality of wood remaining from the iconic 600-year-old white oak tree that will be cut down during the week of April 24 before deciding how to preserve portions of the tree for its historic significance, said John Kippel, a member of the church’s planning council.”
The article further noted that a number of local artists, woodworkers, schools and other groups interested in getting pieces of the tree.
Milling the tree, however, would be anything but easy because of the extraordinary efforts that were taken to save the it from literally rotting to death in 1924.
According to information compiled by Forged In Wood, at the time the tree was 93 feet tall, with a 126-foot spread and 23-foot-diameter trunk. Tons of concrete were painstakingly poured into 72 cavities, 165 feet of threaded rod was installed to brace the tree and concrete and 1,150 feet of steel cable were anchored to support the weight of the tree’s branches. The total price of this unique tree surgery performed under the auspices of Davey Tree Company was $2,393.08.
Having recently unearthed the article from in my files, I searched the web to see what became of the tree and its wood. Plenty as it turns out, including:
-^- Frank Pollaro of Pollaro Custom Furniture reportedly went through 120 blades, including three diamond blades, ti create boards from the tree, some of which he used to make communion tables for the church. Pollaro and other researchers used a magnifying lens to count the tree’s rings. They arrived at an estimated birth year of 1398 – 319 years before the original Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church was built.
^-^ A 5-foot tall, 8,400-pound chunk from the trunk was donated as a memorial to Rose Farms of Basking Ridge for public viewing.
-^- Last year, singer-songwriter Alan Grant performed at the site of the removed tree playing an electric guitar made from the legendary oak. More than 30 people who fought in the revolutionary war are buried there.
^-^ A variety of wood gifts and novelties including serving boards, blocks of decorative wood, pens, ornaments, candle centerpieces and pendant necklaces.
-^- Forgedinwood.net is a website that memorialized the tree’s long history and bonds with the community.
^-^ “Under the Great Oak,” is a feature-length documentary produced by local screenwriter Michael Reynolds.
-^- A 16-year-old oak that grew from an acorn of the landmark oak tree at Union County College has been transplanted to where its famous “father” once stood.
Stay tuned for my 2620 update!