Trees were a subject dear to Mr. Bush’s heart. This article is just one of many in which he waxed both poetic and nostalgic about the grand old trees of his neighborhood.

Included in this article is some early history of the area of Stockton where Route 523, Old Prallsville Road, Ferry Street and Route 29 (Risler Street) all come together. Rather than interrupt Mr. Bush with a long parentheses, I will save my comments for the end of his article.

When Stockton Was Not So Dry

Old Sentinel Oak Has Passed

Woodman’s Axe Removes Famous Stockton Tree; Died of Old Age
Rings Show Good, Bad Years

by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, N.J.
published in the Hunterdon County Democrat, April 4, 1935

At last Stockton has lost its famous guardian tree that stood so long beside the Sergeantsville Road where it comes wriggling its tortuous way down to the landing place of the old Howell’s Ferry. The tree stood some forty feet above the junction of that highway with the old River Road (now Main Street) as in old times it climbed over the hill on its way to Prallsville. The old landing is now reached by what has become “Ferry Street,” and Prallsville is now reached by “Risler Street,” built over ground too soft and marshy for the old-time road builders.

Last spring the old oak put out feeble leaves in its struggle for continued existence; but these soon withered, and the tree was dead. From that time it stood as a menace to traffic and to electric wires until a few days ago when, without damage or accident, it was taken down by the Postal Telegraph Company’s gang of experts in that line. It will be remembered as standing across the road from the Baptist Church, in line with the rear-end of that building, seemingly crowded by the road on one side and the deep, narrow creek on the other. Its position was such that it was truly a sentinel in the old days.

Age Not Determined

Nobody will ever know the exact age of the old oak. Several years ago I ventured to set its age at 200 years. Lately, knowing that it must soon be removed I had been carefully watching for a chance to make a closer estimate. Unfortunately, the tree was taken down, cut up and mostly carted away before I knew what was being done. When the facts were discovered, I made haste to do the best possible in spite of the lost opportunity. Every part that could give complete and accurate information had been destroyed, so far as present needs were concerned. Nevertheless, some-thing by way of correction or confirmation was still possible. The most promising piece was selected but this ran nowhere near to the center of the trunk, and the heart or companion piece could not be found. The rings on the part remaining were carefully counted. But the result, tho pleasing, was hardly satisfactory. Old eyes and fine lines are not a good combination for such work. So another effort was made, this time with a magnifying glass in hand. Fully a hundred and fifty arcs were now counted; and from this, I am satisfied that the former estimate of 200 years was considerably below the true age of the tree.

Good Years and Bad

The study of this old wood was very interesting. Good years and bad ones could readily be designated, especially for the middle period of its growth. The differences were all the more surprising because the tree stood upon the bank of a never-failing stream, and it seemed reasonable to suppose that this would insure against any great lack of moisture. But the stream was far below the level of the bank, and a rocky bottom may have prevented any great advantage to the tree. Besides, there may be other factors all the time affecting the growth of a tree, factors about which we know little or nothing.

This great oak bore many evidences of “having grown out of doors,” as old people used to remark about a tree with low, broad-spreading limbs. Certainly it had never been crowded by other trees, or the trunk would have been very different. A struggle for life may be won under almost any conditions but a struggle for light and air is absolutely necessary to the production of fine timber, just as a struggle may sometimes be necessary in human affairs.

Suffered Hard Knocks

Scars and unusual growths showed that hard knocks had characterized the life of this old giant and a charred interior reminded us that fire had come near to ending its career more than twenty years ago. That fire appeared to have originated in that mysterious way so characteristic of fires in big hollow trees—with no witnesses, no knowledge on the part of anybody, no apparent cause and no means of detection. Fiercely it blazed, threatening immediate destruction. But the fire company came to the rescue and saved the landmark for at least another score of years. The old Sentinel had gone thru so much that the wood could scarcely be recognized as white oak, the color being too red for that or any other species of oak known in this locality.

Two hundred feet away, on the Charles Parent property adjoining this lot, stands another tree of the same kind, with similar form of growth and general appearance, tho of less girth and evidently not so old. This one is still vigorous, promising shade for many years to come.

Grew Little in Past 50 Years

The remains of the old Sentinel Oak show remarkably little growth for the last fifty years of its life. The total for that period was scarcely more than two inches in diameter. A strong glass was needed for tracing the rings; but there they were, manifesting a feeble but determined attempt to fight off inevitable death. A pitiable sight indeed; but such at times is life in all of its many forms.

During those two centuries and more, what changes must have been witnessed by the faithful Sentinel posted on this spot. Here it stood when a house was a novelty and for miles around, the country was practically a wilderness. Here it watched over the shop of John Loomis, the first blacksmith known to have been here, and saw his wonderful shop running by water power and turning out axes with astonishing speed; saw that cold spring water, temporarily diverted from its natural course, to make those axes, to grind apples for the distillery and to cool the worm from which ran the cheerful and intoxicating stream of famous old-time applejack. It witnessed the erection of the first tavern here, built so long ago that it had grown old and ready to be abandoned by 1832, when the present Stockton Hotel was erected. It saw the stone store house and dwelling built on the same lot by Col. John Sharp in 1842, and the Baptist Church rising stone by stone, on the old tavern lot in 1860.

Enjoyed a Broad Vision

Nor was its vision limited to its immediate surroundings. Prallsville above and Brookville below were well within its jurisdiction. It saw the ferry established early in the 18th century, saw Centre Bridge displace the ferry in 1814, saw that bridge fall hissing into the river, span by span in 1923, to be succeeded in 1927 by a structure of steel and concrete, at a cost equal to the tax ratables of the entire borough. It saw the first canal boats slowly moving past in 1834; and, seventeen years later, beheld the iron horse belching fire and smoke, as it began to rush madly up and down along the bank of the canal.

All of the changes and improvements hereabouts came under its purview: the sawmill, flourishing for a long time, then dying of starvation; the handle factory, turning out fine products for years, then burning down; the pail factory, going thru many changes of purpose and ownership, and ending its career in a spectacular fire; the tall store house, rising at the corner of Bridge and Main Streets, flourishing until 1905, then going down in the worst fire that Stockton has ever suffered; the foundry and shops springing up at Brookville, becoming the center of important industries and utterly passing away;  the grist mill, so early established at Prallsville, growing and expanding gradually and still remaining—the only old-time manufacturing industry that has here survived the storms and vicissitudes of the past 200 years.

But the tree is gone at last. Long may it be remembered. Farewell to the old Sentinel Oak!

Comments:

The Postal Telegraph Company, which despite its name, did not deliver the mail except in the form of a telegraph, was the main competitor with Western Union in the early 20th century. They merged in 1945.

Age of the Tree:  If the tree was only 200 years old when it was taken down in 1935, then it began growing about the time that Daniel Howell and wife Mary Ann Reading died in the 1730s, they being the first known residents of this area. If it was older, as Mr. Bush seems to think, then it was standing when Mary Ann Reading’s father John Reading first arrived and when Daniel Howell set up the ferry located at the end of Ferry Street, perhaps as early as 1710.

Charles Parent (1862-1939), son of Nathaniel Burroughs Parent and Mary Ann Everitt, grew up on Brookville-Hollow Road, and was probably living there when he was counted in the 1900 census as a truck farmer. In 1911, his wife, Eva Laubenstine acquired a lot of 1.44 acres in Stockton on the road from Stockton to Sergeantsville, bordering Maurice Woolverton and a maple tree (Deed 300-173; the deed made no mention of an oak). Two years later, she bought an additional 2.27 acres adjacent to the first lot, part of the old Woolverton tract (Deed 317-698). I am surprised Mr. Bush did not mention her, since she was the one who owned the lot. (Charles Parent’s name does not appear in the index of deeds for Hunterdon County.) The second lot was described as beginning on the road from Stockton to Flemington, where it meets “the road leading to Prallsville.” This was either Woolverton Road or Old Prallsville Road. This lot was carved out of a larger property owned by the Woolvertons, which was acquired from John Sharp in 1877.

John Loomis. I have no family information on John Loomis. A search of Ancestry.com with an estimated birth date only brought up John Loomis of Wantage, Sussex Co., (c.1818-1889). I doubt that was the same person. There is no John Loomis listed in the deeds recorded in the Hunterdon County Clerk’s office. Loomis and Sharp were both also mentioned in an earlier article by Mr. Bush, titled “When Stockton Was Not So Dry,” published on December 5, 1929. I am saving that for when I take on the subject of the temperance movement in Hunterdon County.

Col. John Sharp (1792-1876), son of Robert Sharp and Rachel Ent, married Maria Holcombe about 1820, and lived on his farm at Sandy Ridge. The storehouse he built in Stockton was run by his nephew Daniel R. Sharp (1818-1892), son of William Sharp and Esther Butterfoss, who also were residents of Sandy Ridge. Another nephew and son of William and Esther Sharp was George W. Sharp to whom John Sharp conveyed in 1871 rights and privileges in regard to conveying water in pipes across the lands of John Shields, later owned by Maurice Woolverton. This information was found in the deed to Eva Parent, mentioned above.

Risler Street:  Bush wrote that “The tree stood some forty feet above the junction of that highway {Rte 523} with the old River Road (now Main Street) as in old times it climbed over the hill on its way to Prallsville.” For us today, that means that “Old Prallsville Road” was the route taken to Prallsville, rather than Risler Street, which runs closer to the canal and river.  On March 31, 1930, the Borough of Stockton voted to have the County “take over” Risler Street from its intersection with Main Street north to the Prallsville Bridge, a distance of 0.53 miles (Road File #39-3-21). I was puzzled by this reference to a bridge at Prallsville, until I realized they were referring to a bridge over the Wickecheoke Creek, not over the Delaware River. I did not see anything in the compilation of road petitions at the County Clerk’s office regarding construction of Risler Street, but I may have just missed it.

Ferry Street:  Bush also wrote “The old landing is now reached by what has become ‘Ferry Street’ . . .” The old landing was were people caught Daniel Howell’s ferry. Considering that the canal made it inaccessible, I am surprised Mr. Bush used the term. In the ferry days, Route 523 ran straight down to the river, over what has since become known as Ferry Street.

Here is a detail from the Beers & Comstock Atlas showing how the roads looked in 1873. Risler Street did not yet exist in 1873. Ferry Street is the road that goes strait to the river (between the letters R and I in the word ‘river’).

Detail from Beers & Comstock, Atlas of Hunterdon County 1873

Detail from Beers & Comstock, Atlas of Hunterdon County 1873

It had been my intention to include a discussion of a road return dated 1813 in which Route 523 got rerouted across the creek that Mr. Bush referred to, starting at the tavern lot of Ezra Shamp, but it is too interesting to be just a footnote. It will appear in another post, soon.

Correction, 4/3/2015: : I changed the birth date of Charles Parent from 1871 to 1862, in light of Rich Lowe’s comment. 9/22/16: I added the original title, having inadvertently left it off when it was first published.