NEW MILFORD Arborists say better maintenance of the historic Washington Oak in Gaylordsville would have prevented the severe damage that befell the nearly 400-year-old tree during a snowstorm last Saturday. Arborists do agree that the once powerful and majestic-looking oak was hollowing out because of its age. However, some say the tree did not receive the proper horticultural care that would have prevented nearly half of the tree from cracking away.
"If it was taken care of the way it should have, it would be there today,'' said Bernard Wright, the former tree warden in Bethel who worked on the Washington Oak 40 years ago as an employee of the Albert W. Meserve Co. Wright, who visited the massive oak tree the week before the limb broke away, said he noticed a rusted cable wire hanging down that day.
``I put that cable in nearly 40 years ago and some cables were in there longer than that,'' said Wright, 80. ``Cables should be replaced every 15-20 years.'' Local tree expert William Bader of Washington agrees with Wright.
``This is a crime that this tree has blown down,'' said Bader, who has examined the tree on countless occasions. ``It would still be up if it were properly maintained.'' Wright further stated that decades ago he told the Daughters of the American Revolution, the tree's caretaker, that the oak should be pruned back to reduce the weight of the massive limbs that stretch across Gaylord Road.
The tree's historical significance is not overstated. The Washington Oak, also known as the Gaylordsville Oak, is considered the most historic tree still living in Connecticut, according to Glenn D. Dreyer, director of the Connecticut College Arboretum in New London.
``It's the most historic tree Connecticut still has,'' Dreyer said. ``It's hard to put an exact age on it, but oaks are known to live at least 400years.''
The tree's notoriety has to do with a meeting George Washington had with his officers and the French general Marquis de Lafayette on Sept. 20, 1780. Washington held counsel under the tree and ate lunch there before making his way to Hartford to persuade other French leaders to help America fight forits independence.
The tree was apparently of substantial size then, according to historical records. Dorothy Garren said she remembers her grandmother, Sarah Day Hall, telling her that the tree was rather large when Hall moved to Gaylordsville in the 1880s.
``My grandmother gave the tree and a 20-square-foot plot around it to the Daughters of the American Revolution about 60 years ago,'' Garren said. ``When I saw what happened I was devastated. It's withstood a lot of damage over the years, including a lightning strike.''
Howard Stevens, a former tree warden in New Milford, said it is doubtful anything could have been done to prevent the serious rot that has spread through the white oak. He said the tree was pruned on occasion and that new cables had been installed.
The problems with tree rot could have started a century ago, said Stevens, 60. Up until the 1940s and 1950s, the accepted practice was to fill in cavities with concrete. That method no longer used accelerated the rot. An inspection of the tree yesterday showed a large rotted cavity filled with concrete just above where the limb broke away. The circumference of the limb is larger than most trees in the area. The rot spread from a center limb that broke off decades ago.
``The cement takes in moisture and increases the rot,'' Stevens said. ``But it covered up the problem and it (rot) was out of sight and out of mind. Nobody ever suggested that the cement be removed because that would cost too much.''
New Milford tree warden Philip Lovell, who inspected the tree, said some of the remaining heavy limbs on the tree will have to be pruned back to reduce the stress on the tree's crotch. ``The tree spreads out more than it is tall, and that's a lot of weight to support,'' Lovell said. `'It will look shorter, but it can be done in such a way so that it doesn't look like a hat rack.''
According to measurements taken in 1986, the oak was 73 feet tall, 20 feet in circumference with a canopy spread of 115 feet. A rough measurement yesterday put the circumference nearer to 24 feet.
Lovell said pruning could cost anywhere from $500 to $1,000. He suggested that a local fund-raiser could help defray costs for the DAR. Even if the tree is lightened somewhat, it will still be unbalanced, Stevens said. Nearly 40 percent of the oak fell all on one side under the weight of heavy snow brought inland by a Nor'easter.
The limb smashed a wood fence on adjacent property. ``What is left standing is like a sail,'' Stevens said. ``It's just waiting for another Nor'easter to come through the valley and blow it over.''
The state chapter of the DAR has paid for past tree care, according to Newtown resident Myrtle DiNovi, a regent for the DAR's Roger Sherman chapter.
DiNovi said the DAR spent $400 three years ago to install a new sign under the tree and $800 for pruning and cable installation. She said she is awaiting an estimate of the tree work from New Fairfield arborist Robert Judd, who has done work for the DAR in the past. Judd is on vacation.
``That tree is almost 400 years old,'' DiNovi said. ``How much longer can you expect it to go? Every thing has a season.''