A Chestnut That Acted As Host to a Younger Tree
– Biggest Oak of Them All

by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, N.J.
published in the Hunterdon County Democrat, January 1, 1931

This month is a big allergy month for me, so I looked up what Mr. Bush had to say about trees. Turns out—quite a lot. Bush had a great affection for the grand old trees that had survived the previous century, and frequently mentioned them in his articles. Now that our trees are leafing out, it seems appropriate to publish this essay. The willow described here once stood in front of Roger Byrom’s house in Headquarters. 

On the bank of the stream in front of the mansion house at Headquarters, just below the old mill, stands a rough old willow tree that is well worth your notice. You may not think so at first glance from a distance. Go nearer, and see how the rough old tree grows in size and interest as you approach. At first you saw only two or three dead boles, broken off at varying heights. These do not stir up much interest, but go ahead and something will.

You find that these three all sprang from one mother bole, and that there has been still another and larger one among them. You will find also that the tallest of those standing is not entirely dead, but is doing its best to keep the good old grandmother still alive. For it does look as if that central or fourth bole had been the direct ancestor around whose declining body the other three sprang as the next generation, the great short body from which they all sprang being the grandmother or perhaps the great-great-grandmother of the three.

Notice this old body, eight or nine feet high. See how it swells out before you until it is indeed a monster. Note its shape and its size, and you will no doubt decide that it is a thing of beauty in spite of almost hideous ugliness.

How big is it? That is just what Bert B. German and the writer were asking each other a few weeks ago. Neither knew, so he got a ball of twine and we measured the girth—24 feet, a very unusual size for this vicinity. I am not sure of ever having measured quite its equal. There it stands, and there it has stood, O so long! It is well, while gazing upon it, to let the mind run back over the generations of men that have come, looked upon that tree and passed to the Great Beyond.

Bert B. German was the storekeeper at Headquarters for many years, along with his wife Jennie Hann. They married about 1908, but did not have any children. Their niece, Grace German, recalled that Bert was a sweet and kind man who enjoyed giving her candy when she visited his store.

Bert and Jennie German at their Headquarters store
Bert and Jennie German at their Headquarters store

How Old Is It?

How old it is, no body knows or ever will know. The trunk is no doubt so defective within that no counting of concentric rings will ever be possible. George Washington, while a guest in the Mansion house, no doubt looked calmly upon the verdant beauty of that tree more than a century and a half ago; and rich John Opdyke cast an appreciate eye upon it while building the original mill in 1754, and later as he was “measuring his money with a half-bushel.”

It was Charles Wilson Opdyke, in his grand “Op Dyke Genealogy,” who declared that John Opdycke measured his money with a half bushel. That is where Mr. Bush got this idea of Washington’s visit to Headquarters. It was a long-standing tradition in the Opdycke family. Unfortunately, it doesn’t compute. Gen. Washington, if he did visit Headquarters, did not stay at the “Mansion House.” At the time of the Revolution, the mill and Mansion House were tenanted by Benjamin and Elizabeth Tyson. The mill was often referred to as “Tyson’s Mill.” John Opdycke, the patriot, was residing in a stone house some distance south on Lambertville-Headquarters Road. Washington is more likely to have stopped at the inn located at the corner, known as White Hall Tavern. This inn was headquarters for Capt. David Johnes, who recruited for the Amwell militia. It was a very large house, and would no doubt have had room for the General and his staff. The inn was demolished in the 20th century. I have written about this myth before: “Washington Didn’t Sleep in Delaware Twp.” and “Who Saw George Washington?

As for when the mill was built, “the original mill” was almost certainly built about 1735, when Benjamin Severns and wife Sarah Green came to live in the vicinity. There is a surviving datestone with that date, although there is some question whether the stone really is original. And there is some question about where exactly the original mill stood. There is a magnificent ruin on the property that is probably the first of several mills that operated there. The datestone is attached to the present mill building.

John Opdycke, who married Sarah Green’s sister Margaret in 1737, seems to have taken over the milling operation from his brother-in-law. As for the date of 1754, there is indeed a date stone for that year on the mill, but there is also one on a house that Opdycke built next to the covered bridge.1 But, back to the tree:

The willow tree has a curious habit of seeming to grasp after personal immortality. Often the tree dies down to or breaks off at a few feet above the ground, leaving a living “stump” to send up shoots and lengthen out its own existence. This process may be repeated, and has been repeated under careful observation. While this is not peculiar to the willow, it is so noticeable as to be almost a special characteristic of the species. This continued process has undoubtedly made the Headquarters “stump” the monster as we see it today. Besides, the tree was favorably located for such tremendous growth. Its roots, at least on one side, were always along or under the brook; and in more recent years a small pipe has kept a continuous stream trickling down thru the roots higher up on the bank.

A Chestnut Tree

I recall one chestnut tree, standing just below the driveway at the entrance to the farm buildings on the Race farm between the Frog Tavern and Allen’s Corner, that appeared to be trying this trick of perpetuation, but it really was not. That bole became hollow to the ground. On the side next to the public road, the shell broke away, leaving the interior exposed to three or four feet up, and showing an accumulation of pulverized rotten wood, the “chip dirt” of the florists. A chestnut happened to find its way into this cozy bed, apparently a lucky find. The nut sprouted and grew, the young tree soon poking its head thru the orifice and growing close to the body of the mother tree. In a few years it was quite a tree itself, probably 15 inches in diameter; and still the old tree seemed to be protecting its offspring to the best of its ability. But the chestnut blight came along, the black plague of the species, and swept away mother and child and all of their neighbors.

The “Race farm” belonged to Jacob Race Jr., who purchased it in 1796 from heirs of Elisha Emley. It was located south of Quakertown and west of Route 579. Dr. Henry Race, one of Hunterdon county’s best local historians, was a son of Jacob Race by his second marriage. The Frog Tavern, south of Allen’s Corner Road in Franklin Township, was discussed at length by Mr. Bush in his articles “Reminiscences of Old Frog Tavern,” published August 8 and 15, 1929 (not yet published on this website). In the first of these articles, Bush located the tavern on the west side of Route 579, about one and a half miles north of Croton, and opposite Rake Factory Road.

One of those neighbors was a tree standing farther down by the roadside along the same farm. This one was noted for its great spreading top and the size of its short body, measuring over six feet across in one direction and considerably less the other way. It was the largest chestnut tree anywhere in the vicinity, and still in fine condition. Had it not been for the scourge, no doubt it would still be bearing delicious nuts.

Finest Whiteoak

As a shade tree, the finest white oak of which I have any knowledge stood near the middle of the public road leading west from Allen’s Corner, a short distance from the junction with the Locktown-Pittstown road; that is, in the road mentioned in old deeds as “leading from the Delaware River to Flemington.” That oak, with its fine round body and its broad symmetrical top was an inspiring sight to man and team on a hot summer day, and at all times a joy to lovers of the grand and beautiful in nature.

Mr. Bush consistently spells white oak, red oak, pin oak, etc. as one word: whiteoak, redoak, etc. I have separated them in most cases. Today, Allen’s Corner Road ends at Rte 579, and the road continuing west to intersect with the Pittstown Road is called “Old Franklin School Road.” But it ends there, so to get to the river required a turn onto another road, which was often the case with these old road descriptions. That leaves me wondering exactly where this location was that Mr. Bush is describing—somewhere along the Pittstown Road.

Of course, the tree was there when the road was laid out away back in the uncertain past. It forced the driveway to one side and completely dominated the ground in a large circle about it. That it was allowed to do all this for probably a century, has always seemed to me a high compliment to the people of the vicinity. How the tired horses did like to reach its grateful shade for a few minutes of rest and comfort!

This fine old oak was cut down forty years ago, leaving a perfectly symmetrical stump five feet across. The concentric rings were carefully counted, and the indicated age was at least 160 years. As is not uncommon, a little space about the heart was difficult to decipher, not because of decay but because rings there were not clearly marked. In spite of all its years, there was not the least sign of old age or decay anywhere. There it lay, as it had stood, a remarkable specimen of youthful vigor regardless of age.

So, the tree was cut down about 1890, and the rings show it began growing about 1730. What an amazing tree that must have been. In the 1730s, the tree was standing on what was known as the John Emley tract.

Why Condemned to Die

I do not recall by whom or for what reason this fine old monarch was condemned to die. But I do remember that there was much lamentation over the loss. It was conceded that the broad shade, by holding frost and moisture too long, made a “bad place” in the road sometimes. But the great heart of the community was with the old monarch, almost everybody hoping that he would be allowed to live out the full measure of his natural life, and die in glory on his throne.

One mourner chalked his indignation across the foot of the fine body as it lay in state. He may have been faulty in his figurative expression, but it is not at all likely that he meant any reflection upon those who had so smoothly severed it from its hold on life, or upon anybody else. Yet some did interpret the stanza as a slur; so prone are we to put the worst convenient construction upon what we do not understand.

That local bard, astonished to see the dear old monarch so suddenly cut off, probably began to ponder over many things; and more especially to ponder over the large Ichneumon fly which is reputed to come leisurely along, pick out a fine hickory tree, slowly drill a tiny hole in its great body and there deposit her egg. That means death to the tree. The leaves suddenly die, the body softens in a “dry rot,” and in an incredibly short time falls to the ground, a martyr to the great service of having acted as incubator to that precious egg. So goes the charge against that fly; and occasionally a fine hickory does act and die as tho in confirmation.

However that may be, the bard was no doubt comparing the long natural life of the tree with the short life of the insect; and from that came to comparing the long natural life of this oak with the probable brevity of the human whim that had condemned it to die. As nearly as can now be recalled, the stanza ran as follows, and really may have in it something worth thinking about:

“How strange it is, if so it be,
Old friend so much endeared!
A passing insect kills the tree,
Six generations reared.”

A final note on the maligned Ichneumon fly:  Mr. Bush was probably repeating common lore, but in fact the ichneumon wasp (it is not a fly) parasitizes other insects and does not destroy trees. As far as I can tell, there were no “passing insects” in the 1890s whose eggs could kill a mature tree the way Bush suggests. I checked with my favorite expert on all things biological, Carl Zimmer, who noted that “there are definitely wasps that lay eggs in hickory trees,” but they are not ichneumon wasps, and whatever they are, they don’t kill trees. However, it might be possible that some wasps could transmit viruses to the trees. A Google search brought up a report by the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, stating that in 1890 research was being done on an insect that was killing oak trees, but the insect was not named. It was probably some type of borer.

There are several articles that Mr. Bush wrote concerning big old trees, so I’ve decided to published them in the coming months—a tree series. You can spot them by the tree icon—a wonderful old oak tree drawn by Thomas Bewick in England. For those more interested in genealogy than biology, not to worry. There is plenty of information in these articles concerning old residents of Hunterdon County.

  1. This is mentioned in Dennis Bertland’s application for the Headquarters District on the National Register, and discussed in “Opdycke’s Mill, Headquarters.