School field trips often made a pilgrimage to Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church in New Jersey, specifically to the church cemetery where, until recently, a towering great oak tree stood. The children would join hands and surround the massive trunk to see how many of them it took to circle the historic tree.
More than 100 feet tall, the majestic white oak was thought to be more than 600 years old. It was believed to be the oldest white oak in the country, and perhaps the world. The tree withstood war and natural disasters, including Hurricane Sandy. George Washington is said to have picnicked under its branches and rested there with his troops on several occasions. Wedding parties often posed for photos by the tree. Visitors strolled through the cemetery grounds, shaded by the oak's branches, which spread more than 150 feet side to side.
But church administrators have known for several years that something has been amiss with the historic oak. It hadn't been greening up the same way each spring, and even with the help of an arborist who has cared for the tree with fertilizer, leaf spray, PH control, watering, pruning and upkeep of the oak's extensive system of cables and limb supports, its health declined.
"This program has no doubt helped extend the life of the tree, but it has not been able to reverse the inevitable aging process that faces all living things," church pastor Dennis Jones wrote in a letter to his congregation. "The aging of our oak tree has accelerated over the past 10 to 15 years."
So on April 24, 2017, cranes cut the treasured tree down, piece by piece. As NJ.com reports: "Each piece of the tree was weighed by the crane operator, with some pieces weighing as much as 8,000 pounds, said a church official. Hundreds of people came by throughout the day to say goodbye to the historic tree that has been the centerpiece of the community for centuries."
The lumber was loaded onto a truck and taken to an undisclosed location until officials decide what to do with it. And as a consolation of sorts, a 16-year-old white oak grown from acorns collected from the great white oak was planted near the church.
A town mourns
For a community that has been defined by the tree’s presence, with oak leaves on every logo connected to the area, the fate of the behemoth weighs heavily.
"We absolutely don't think the impact the tree has on the community could be understated. It's just been a part of the fabric of the community since day one," church administrator Janet Bentley tells MNN. "The tree is a symbol of strength. It's a treasure and our hearts are broken."
Experts aren't sure why the tree failed to thrive. Jones told the Washington Post that he believes it is simply old age. White oaks typically live between 200 and 300 years and the Basking Ridge oak has long surpassed that.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was originally published in June 2016.