An old oak tree that started growing just after the signing of the Declaration of Independence fell to its demise July 11 in St. Mary’s County.
The 234-year-old tree had survived countless thunderstorms and dozens of tropical storms, but a rainy day brought it down, said Ingrid Swann, owner of the historical home Gravelly Hills in Chaptico.
As it fell, “it almost seemed to shake the earth it was so loud,” she said. “It was surprising to hear that.”
The oak tree was showing its age; it had been losing its branches over the years and parts of it came down during Hurricane Irene in 2011, Swann said.
“It was a neat old tree,” she said.
Swann knows the exact age of the tree because in 1976, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources sought out trees that were alive when the Declaration of Independence was signed 200 years earlier. The Gravelly Hills oak was a suspect and a core sample was taken, but it was three years too young.
“We did have some bicentennial trees,” said Gracie Brady, Maryland Big Tree Program coordinator for St. Mary’s. “We lost a bunch of them.”
There is a single known bicentennial tree left in Southern Maryland, according to the Maryland Big Tree Program, and that is in Park Hall on private property.
Called the Hammett Tree, it is estimated to be between 250 and 300 years old, said owner Scott Lawrence. It’s “probably the oldest and largest white oak in the county,” he said.
Last measured in 2008, it was 75 feet tall with a crown spread of 79 feet, according to the Big Tree Program.
It is thought that white oak trees are Maryland’s longest-living tree species. Of the 19 bicentennial trees still listed in Maryland, 10 are white oaks. In 1976, 292 trees in Maryland were identified as bicentennial trees, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
However, “no one kept track of them,” said John Bennett, coordinator of the Maryland Big Tree Program, and there are only 19 still known.
There were five bicentennial trees identified in St. Mary’s County: The Hammett Oak (age 210 in 1976) in Park Hall; an American beech tree (206 years old in 1976) in St. Mary’s City; a willow oak (232 years old in 1976) in St. Mary’s City; a willow oak (400 years old in 1976) at Denby Hill Farm in Bushwood; and an American holly tree (227 years old in 1976) at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
The American holly is now gone, Bennett said, but he is not sure if the other trees are still standing, besides the Hammett Oak.
There was another noted oak tree in Leonardtown. On the hill behind the circuit courthouse was a tree called the Washington Oak. Local folklore said that George Washington addressed the people of the county seat there. The 1938 book “Intimate Glimpses of Old Saint Mary’s” by George Morgan Knight Jr. said that Washington visited Tudor Hall in Leonardtown sometime in 1797, after Washington retired into private life.
Washington is said to have purchased seed wheat from Philip Key. “A large crowd of citizens gathered to see the General and he went with them to a large oak tree nearby on the Tudor Hall property,” wrote author Charles Fenwick Sr. in the Chronicles of St. Mary’s in 1975.
Other famous oak trees in St. Mary’s bore the notches that gave Route 235 its name — Three Notch Road. A Maryland law was passed on October 3, 1704, for the marking of roads. Cuts were made along trees to designate where a road led. One notch was for a road leading to a church, two for a courthouse and three for a ferry. Three Notch Road indirectly led to several ferries.
In a letter to the editor in the Aug. 24, 1942, edition of The Washington Post, Knight wrote, “In the forests which flank the present Three Notch State road, taking its name from the original old trail, stand many of these live notched oaks. One of these historic notched oaks stands in the front yard of Judge P.T. Graves at Laurel Grove for all to see and admire.” Knight said that there were three or more at the Summerseat plantation. “May those still standing live on for eternity,” he wrote.
Bennett said that three bicentennial trees once were identified in Charles County: two white oaks privately owned in La Plata and a Southern red oak at the Morgantown generating plant.
“White oaks live a long time, and it wouldn’t surprise me if one or both of those trees were still alive,” Bennett said. However, Bennett said, he heard in recent years that the red oak was dead.
Records for oldest and biggest trees are not as available for Charles County, Bennett said, because nobody is working to identify them.
A privately owned Southern red oak in Port Tobacco was measured at 371.1 points. Bennett said the measurement puts that tree in the top 10 biggest of its species.
A cherry bark oak in Chapman State Park is recorded as a state champion, and a Southern red oak on Naval Support Facility Indian Head was measured at 321 points.
According to Seth Berry, natural resources program manager at NSF Indian Head, the red oak’s height was determined to be 89 feet in 2010.
Staff writer Rebecca J. Barnabi contributed to this report.