June 26, 1997

Surgeons try to save historic oak

By Dave Dunleavy


NEW MILFORD / Gaylordsville One of the state's historic trees received a much needed arboreal haircut yesterday, as surgeons attempted to extend the life of the 400-year-old Washington Oak. The pruning is necessary to take the weight off the remaining thick limbs that extend out from the trunk of the white oak off Gaylord Road. The massive tree, which has been slowly dying, was severely damaged last December when heavy snow pulled down nearly half of it. That left the tree dangerously unbalanced.

(Stephanie Kouloganis) The 400-year-old Washington Oak was trimmed and pruned yesterday. The tree was severely damaged over the winter. Yesterday's work was meant to lighten the load the tree's limbs have to carry.

Connecticut Light & Power agreed to pull one of its contractors off power line trimming to do the surgery. For nearly eight hours yesterday, workers from Hissong & Weyant used a bucket truck to reach the top and to prune the tree with a chain saw. ``It needs to be lightened up quite a bit,'' said Alan Carey, regional arborist for CL&P. ``We're trying to prolong its life. If we can keep it around another 25 to 50 years, that would be wonderful.'' The tree has been slowly dying for the past 100 years or so, ever since a cavity was filled in with a concrete-like substance. Since that time, water has seeped underneath the concrete, permitting a fungal growth to take hold at the top of the trunk, a condition known as heart rot. Although the trunk 21 feet in circumference looks healthy from the outside, it is hollow on the inside and is badly decayed in spots.

Tree warden Phil Lovell was responsible for getting a CL&P crew to do the pruning. Town crews were to cart away the wood. ``The idea was to get local guys to do the work, but they've been busy and no one has stepped forward,'' Lovell said. ``The canopy is getting heavier and I'm afraid the tree will fall. Besides the public liability, I don't want to see the old tree go.'' The oak is one of the oldest historic trees in Connecticut, according to Glen Dreyer of the Connecticut College Arboretum in New London. Its notoriety comes from a meeting among George Washington, 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 for its independence.

The tree's age has been estimated at 350-400 years, given that it was easily more than 100 years old when Washington sat under it, according to historical accounts. Measurements taken in 1986 show that the oak was 73 feet tall and 20 feet in circumference, with a canopy spreading 115 feet. In 10 years, the circumference of the trunk has grown by nearly one foot.

The tree's caretaker is the Daughters of the American Revolution, which has little money for tree care. Yesterday's tree work would have cost close to $1,000. ``This is definitely a blessing. The tree needs this work badly,'' said Myrtle DiNovi, a Newtown resident and the regent for the DAR's Roger Sherman chapter.