I hope the recent caterwauling about cutting down trees made many aware of the need to preserve large and historic trees, wherever possible. To justify Rye’s status as a “Tree City”, more individuals and groups need to be involved in this effort, beside the garden clubs and the Sustainability Committee.
A great example of community involvement occurred about fifty years ago in the northern Westchester village of Bedford when residents organized to save the “Bedford Oak”. Believed to be around 500 years old, the white oak still lies on a tract deeded to Bedford’s founders by Chief Katonah in 1680. It may be the only tree in the state to have its own endowment, collected in 1977 to fend off a proposed property development.
Perhaps knowledge of that achievement inspired Ralph P. Manny, a longtime Rye resident and founder of Shenorock Shore Club, to purchase an undeveloped lot on Midland Avenue near his home. On the lot stood an ancient oak tree for many years that finally died after its protector’s own death in 1993.
Rye has a long tradition of tree preservation, as noted in Baird’s “History of Rye”. It mentions Rev. Evan Rogers, rector of Christ’s Church in the early 1800s, whose love of trees persuaded the vestry to “procure and set out around the church as many forest trees as they deem practicable…”
More recently, the importance of tree preservation has been promoted by the Jay Heritage Center. One of its newsletters described a horse chestnut, “which is believed to be one of the oldest trees on the nationally landmarked Jay property dating back to John Jay’s own lifetime. Jay and his fellow Founding Fathers took great pride in their landscapes and joy in their trees.
Jay loved trees, planting many at the Rye estate like his father before him. He passed his love of horticulture on to his sons. In a letter to Peter Augustus Jay who would inherit the Rye land he wrote:
“It always gives me pleasure to see trees which I have reared and planted, and therefore I recommend it to you to do the same. …My father planted many trees, and I never walk in their shade without deriving additional pleasure from that circumstance; the time will come when you will probably experience similar emotions.”
In a 1986 article, The New York Times article described Westchester County’s “Big Tree Register”, which recognized the largest native trees of individual species that existed in the county. It noted that three Westchester trees were then on the state register, which “promotes good tree care and forestry.”
The Westchester register no longer exists, but the state “Big Tree” register can still be found at www.dec.ny.gov/animals/5248.html (“animals” is not a typo). The title of biggest tree in the state currently goes to an Eastern cottonwood, located in Rensselaer County. It has a trunk diameter of more than 10 feet, and possibly enough rings within it to be as old as the United States.
The biggest trees, which must be native, are defined not just by the size of their trunk, but also by height, and the size of their canopy. Champions have to be measured every ten years to remain on the list.
Rye is fortunate to have a magnificent historic tree, located in front of the Damiano Center in Recreation Park on Midland Avenue. This white oak, which may be 300 years old, should be given a special status by the City of Rye to assure it will live as long as possible and remind us of our natural heritage. It could also be the top of a new list of Rye’s historic trees.