BASKING RIDGE, N.J. -- A white oak tree that has watched over a New Jersey community and a historic church for hundreds of years began its final bow Monday as crews began its removal and residents fondly remembered the go-to spot for formal photos, a landmark for driving directions and a remarkable piece of natural history.
Crews at the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church in Bernards Township began taking down the 600-year-old tree, which was declared dead after it began showing rot and weakness over the last couple of years.
The tree — the oldest known white oak tree in America — is located next to the church, which was founded in 1717, CBS New York reports.
“Everybody that has ever lived here has recognized that tree as sort of a symbol of home,” parishioner John Klippel said last fall.
George Washington walked past it. Some of his soldiers are buried under it. The tree even predates Columbus, CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman reported.
“The stories about the old oak tree go back to when George Washington met with the Marquis de Lafayette, and had picnicked under the tree, and they were strategizing about the Revolutionary War,” said Carolyn Gaziano, the mayor of Bernards Township, CBS New York reported.
The tree’s life cycle has run out, and the church began taking it down before it fell on its own and damaged the Revolutionary War headstones below.
Its death was likely due to its age. Arborists determined it wouldn’t be able to withstand many more harsh winters or spring storms.
“It’s a really big symbol, welcoming to see every year and so sad to watch it go,” said resident Marie Young.
But before dying, the tree gave back to the town that loves it. A much younger 25-foot white oak grew from an acorn that fell from the gigantic mother tree. It was planted in the cemetery with enough space to grow for years to come.
It will take a few days to cut down the tree, which is 18 feet around and has a branch spread of roughly 150 feet wide. The chopping and pulling will draw attention from residents of a bedroom community about 30 miles west of New York and other tree fans who see it as a chance to bid a final farewell.
The tree’s removal is a reminder of how older trees are starting to become less common across the nation. Experts say fewer trees are replicating the old oak’s 600-year lifespan. They note that several factors — including droughts, intensive wildfires and invasive insects — that can greatly harm trees, which become more susceptible to damage as they age.
The church will keep the tree’s stump and memorialize its life with a plaque.