BERNARDS, N.J. (AP) — A white oak tree that has watched over a New Jersey community and a 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, landmark for driving directions and the remarkable piece of natural history.
Crews at the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church in Bernards began taking down the 600-year-old tree that was declared dead after it began showing rot and weakness during the last couple of years. They were due to return to the church Tuesday — weather permitting — to continue the process, which is expected to be completed by Wednesday.
"Over the past few years (the tree's) health has declined quite dramatically. Our folks did everything possible to help its health be restored, but it was just the end of its life and it was not meant to be," the Rev. Dennis Jones, the church's pastor, said as the work got underway.
The removal work drew lots of attention from residents of a bedroom community about 30 miles (48 kilometers) west of New York and other tree fans who saw it as a chance to bid a final farewell to their close friend. Hundreds of people came by during the day to watch the work, many appearing somber as they watched workers use chain saws to cut down limbs and branches.
The tree pieces were loaded onto a log truck and taken to an undisclosed site where they will be evaluated and inventoried. Officials still are deciding what to do with the wood and what will be put on the site where the tree stood.
The tree has been an important part of the community since the town's inception in the 1700s. Officials say it was the site of a picnic Gen. George Washington held with the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Rev. George Whitefield, a noted evangelist, preached to more than 3,000 people beneath the tree in 1740.
"It's just always been there, it's always been a part of my town and now it's time to just say goodbye," Amanda Hughes said Monday. "It's dead, it's lived a good life and it's time for it to come down, and we will remember it in different ways now."
Arborists say the tree had stood for nearly 300 years before the church was built in 1717. It stands about 100 feet tall, has a trunk circumference of 18 feet and has a branch spread of roughly 150 feet. Its death was likely due to its age.
But there is a silver lining for tree fans: Another white oak cultivated from the old tree's acorns was recently planted at the church, so its legacy will continue at the church.