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It's known as the great white oak and is the pride of Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Situated right smack in the center of downtown Basking Ridge just to the right of the historic 1717 Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church sits the great white oak. The tree is the essence of the history of Basking Ridge, a historic section of Bernards Township.
The Greatest White Oak History
Before we get started, it's important to note that there is disagreement as to the actual age of the great white oak that stands over the Presbyterian Church in the downtown section of Basking Ridge, New Jersey. The tree is iconic. It's historic, and it's certainly been around longer than anyone that we can tell in our recorded history (except maybe the Lene-Lenape Indians). While the typical apple tree lives for 80 years and maple trees about 150, a common oak typically can live up to 350 years. Then there's this tree #blessourhistoricoak (see campaign below). it's a miracle to see this great oak specimen has survived and thrived over our our local history for what is said to be approximately 600 years old.
So How Big is this White Oak Legend?
First let's put things in a bit of perspective with some background on oak trees. Quercus alba, the white oak, is one of the pre-eminent hardwoods of eastern and central North America. It is a long-lived oak, native to eastern and central North America. Although called a white oak, it is very unusual to find an individual specimen with white bark; the usual color is a light gray. In the forest it can reach a magnificent height and in the open it develops into a massive broad-topped tree with large branches striking out at wide angles.
Quercus alba typically reaches heights of 80 to 100 feet (24–30 m) at maturity, and its canopy can become quite massive as its lower branches are apt to extend far out laterally, parallel to the ground. Trees growing in a forest will become much taller than ones in an open area which develop to be short and massive. The tallest known white oak is 144 feet (44 m) tall. It is not unusual for a white oak tree to be as wide as it is tall, but specimens growing at high altitudes may only become small shrubs. White oak may live 200 to 300 years, with some even older specimens known. The acorns are much less bitter than the acorns of red oaks. They are small relative to most oaks, but are a valuable wildlife food.
In 1924, extensive measurements were taken of the great white oak in Basking Ridge:
In July 1947, extensive repairs were done:
In 1958 again - measurements were taken:
Nov 10, 1966:
Then we have stats from May 2000:
Lore and History are Shared Under the Great White Oak
Famous evangelist George Whitefield preached to over 3,000 people while standing under its branches during the Great Awakening of 1740. According to local lore, General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette picnicked under its protective shade and Revolutionary War soldiers stopped here to rest. Washington established a military hospital a short distance from the tree, in the vicinity of today’s North Maple Avenue.
The present church, built in 1839, rests on the site of two former edifices: a small log meeting house circa 1717 in which the congregation first worshipped and later a larger frame structure, built around 1749. The white oak is located in the church yard which has been a community “burying ground” since the early 18th century with the oldest stone dating to 1736 (Henry Haines, 1687-1736). Over the tombstones broods the ancient tree which stands tall at 97', with a spread of 156' and a circumference of 18'. In the 1930s in an effort to save the tree, a large cavity was filled with 3 tons of concrete and the local water company installed 260 feet of steel rods and 1,500 feet of steel cables to support the weight of the tree's branches. Today, it remains the centerpiece of the historic village. (Source: THSSH Newsletter - May 2014)
It’s Rumored Betsy Ross is Buried Under the Mighty Oak
Accounts that Betsy Ross was buried in Basking Ridge were prevalent in the early 1900s. When doing research for a book about the Bernards Township Library in 1995, this writer found scrapbooks compiled by the late Dr. William Pennington which revealed clippings about the Ross burial.
The earliest mention, however, was in a July 4, 1876 speech given by E.M. Pennington. He states “Here lies the woman who made the first banner containing the stars and stripes after that honored old ensign had been adopted, June 14, 1776.” The speech was made in the vicinity of the revered old oak tree. Is it true? Click Here to read and decide for yourself.
Who's Buried Under the Great White Oak
A walk through the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church cemetery just under the great white oak. Narrated by Robert Smith from the BRPC.
Thirty five Revolutionary War Soldiers are buried in this cemetery:
George Washington Slept Here?
It is noted that George Washington met Lafayette under the old oak tree. In addition, it was reported/stated that General Washington camped "near it's limbs" during his march to Morristown after the Battle of Princeton in 1777. (There was a noted Revolutionary War Hospital in Basking Ridge as well). (Bville News June 24, 1947)
1777 - 45 year old General George Washington met then 20-year-old French Major General Marquis de Lafayette under the old oak tree. (tree would have been a young 239 years old!) The Revolution was tied to many trees, including the famed Liberty Tree in Boston. That tree is no longer with us.
While the area is rich in Revolutionary War history as Basking Ridge was the home of General Lord Stirling, aide to Washington, it may be true that when General Marquis De Lafayette and Commander Washingtion met in Basking Ridge, they might have had a "picnic" under the tree. There are historic writings, letters, and diary entries stating that the two met at the tree's location. But then again, how could you not, since it was a crossroad for the area. But a picnic? Why not I guess.
Did You Know?
If you're not a home grown local, you might not know that the great oak tree made it to the township logo as well.
The Basking Ridge Township Flag/Insignia and logo includes two oak leaves; one for Basking Ridge and the other for Liberty Corner. Also the Great White oak is located on 1 East Oak Street, home address to the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church.
1924 - The "Dentist" Visits the Great Oak
It was 1924, and the historic oak tree was having troubles. Overseen by the Trustees of the Presbyterian Church, noted as "The Friends of the Old Oak", noted that the heart of the tree and some of the limbs were in decay.
After the "tree surgeons" from Davey Tree Co. including Martin L. Davey, took a look, they agreed to chisel out the cavity and fill with a special cement. It was stated in the article that,"the hole was big enough to hold three men at a time", stated John Gilley, who was in charge of the operation. Over 1,500 pounds of fertilizer were also applied to the tree and the ground area. It was reported that the cost to repair was $1,200 to $1,500. (Source: Bernardsville News - July 17, 1924)
Read an exempt of the 1924 tree pruning and repair activities - Click Here.
1947 - Davey Tree Experts Make Another Major Church Call
july 24, 1947:
A Few Things You Might Not Have Known About
Step Back in Time - The Presbyterian Church and the Holy Oak
The Church and the Oak Tree have a LONG relationship. Click Here to read the 1992 article and learn what to look forward to for the 300th Anniversary of the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church (in 2017).
We also found in the Presbyterian History book an artist rendering of what the church and meeting house looked like in 1717. Back then, as the book stated - the tree was born around 1410 - thus in 1717 the oak tree would have been 307 years old, which is the typical age an oak tree would spend it's entire life. And the roads around the church remind us of pastors from the past (Cross,Finley, Brownlee, Rankin)
Rendering of the First Prysbyterian Church & Meeting House c.1717
My Faith, My Hope
"When God is everywhere around, It is not very hard to see
O come and shine in rising hope, In pillared church beside a tree.
What about the Tree's Age
Is the tree 600 years old? 500 years old? We've been unable to find any verification like carbon dating or DNA testing to determine the trees age, but we did find in 1924 a report that dated the tree. I have heard a humorous quote from long time residents are often saying;
We did some checking and did in fact find that on Nov 9, 1967 Bville News - Quite interesting is that the Presbyterian Church was celebrating its 250th anniversary and the tree was quoted as being 500 years old. (The 300th anniversary is next year 2017 and the tree is identified as 600 years old….. go figure.) That's the fun part about historian does start with someone's point of view.
During the 1924 operations to repair the great oak, a piece of wood from the core was chiseled out and taken to tree experts that placed it's age at between 350 and 400 years old. So adding the difference between 1924 and 2016 you'd come up with 92 years, thus making the tree approximately 442-492 years old in 2016.
What's Next for the Great Oak?
The Historical Society of the Somerset Hills has reached out to the Presbyterian Church in an effort to promote the history of the great oak, and see if we could possibly raise money on behalf of their efforts. The program is in discussion and we'll let you know as soon as news is available.
THSSH is also going to launch a photo campaign where locals can go to the historic oak, and take a picture with our hashtag sign. We hope you'll post your pics on Instagram / Twitter /facebook with the following hash tag:
(bless our historic oak)
From the Archives: Historic Oak Tree Images
Here are a few older pics of the historic church and Oak Tree. Both Basking Ridge and the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church are on the New Jersey State and National Registers of Historic Places as well.
Photo of THSSH's Historic Oak Suncatcher - 5"H x 7"W
G is for Garden State explores the places, people, and landmarks that make New Jersey a fascinating place to live in and to visit again and again. "Q is for Quercus Alba, a 600-year-old white oak tree, stands in the historic cemetery of the Presbyterian Church in Basking RidgeWritten by Eileen Cameron, Illustrations: Doris Ettinger. Published in 2004
2016 - The Basking Ridge Historic Oak is in the News
Recently it was released by the Presbyterian Church that there is some sad news about the iconic historic white oak of Basking Ridge. And then came the news trucks and reporters. Here's just a few of what we've seen in the press. Below is a compilation of some of those videos and articles:
Click the other buttons below to learn more.
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About The Brick Academy
The Brick Academy (also known as the Basking Ridge Classical Schoolhouse) is a 1809 Federal-style architectural structure located in the center of Basking Ridge in Bernards Township. The Brick Academy has been a boys’ private preparatory school, a public school, a meeting hall for several fraternal and benevolent organizations, and the Bernards Township municipal building. It currently serves as the headquarters of The Historical Society of the Somerset Hills, as well as a schoolhouse and museum to local history. The Brick Academy also celebrated its bicentennial in 2009.
About the Historical Society of the Somerset Hills (THSSH)
Founded in 1928 originally as the Historical Society of Basking Ridge, the mission and name of the society was later changed to The Historical Society of the Somerset Hills, a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization including all five communities of the Somerset Hills region: Bedminster Township, Bernards Township, Bernardsville ,Far Hills, Peapack-Gladstone which are all located in Somerset County, New Jersey.
The mission of The Historical Society of the Somerset Hills (THSSH) is to acquire, conserve and share local artifacts and information on matters of local historic interest; cultivate interest in local history; encourage the preservation of local historic resources; facilitate historic research; and preserve, operate, and interpret the Brick Academy.
To further this mission, THSSH sponsors events and activities that promote community awareness and appreciation of the history and architecture of the Somerset Hills. THSSH headquarters is at the Brick Academy in the Basking Ridge section of Bernards Township, where our collections of items of local historic interest are available to the public.
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