It is with heavy hearts that many in Newburgh, NY and others in the Hudson Valley region, greeted the news of the passing of the nation’s oldest Eastern Cottonwood, their most beloved Witness, the Balmville Tree, that had stood at an ancient native forest crossing since 1699.
This is older than the first patents in this part of Orange County, which means the tree was alive and growing before permanent white settlement was firmly established in 1708, when, according to Orange Co. historian David Barclay, (writing in 1901) a small group of German refugees, fleeing the destruction of their lands by the French, were given leave to settle in the area by the English governor at the time.
By the middle of the 18th century the tree had become the center around which a small hamlet grew and which took its name, Balmville, from the tree itself. The settlers had little experience with Cottonwood trees and so supposed it was some kind of balsam wood, or even a Balm of Gilead tree, because its buds oozed a resinous sap in the spring and it exuded a pleasant odor.
That the tree became widely known and was identified with the region can be seen in the fact that every settlement history of Orange County includes specific mention of the tree and the various bits of lore that began to circulate about it.
Samuel Eager, who wrote the first history of Orange County in 1846, collected the most stories and noted that not all of them could possibly be true. The most common stories seem to involve some locally famous person or other who caused the tree to grow by sticking a sapling riding whip in the ground which then took root.
Many of the tales appear to focus around the Demott family, who at the time of Eager’s text had owned a tavern in the area for many decades. Eager regarded the most reliable tale as that told by Isaac Demott, who maintained that he believed the tree had grown naturally, since it was already large by mid 18th century and that he’d cut it to use as a fence rail and that it grew back.
By 1782, during the waning years of the Revolutionary War, the Cottonwood tree had already regrown sufficiently to be “6-7 inches in diameter” with a large spreading top. A local blacksmith, a Mr. Cosgrove, claimed that during the same war, he shod horses in its shade, and it was reputed to have sheltered a certain George Washington when he made his way through the Newburgh, NY area.
When the historian Ruttenbur saw the tree in 1868, its circumference was over 19 feet, indicating a tremendously vigorous growth. The tree was not definitively dated until the 20th century. By Ruttenbur’s time, it was almost 200 years old.
All historians mention that the tree gave forth a pleasant odor in the summer, although early settlers do not appear to have known much about the medicinal uses of the tree.
Barclay and Ruttenbur mention that in the late 19th century, a couple of physicians became interested in the tree and told locals that its resin and sap could be used as a treatment for rheumatism and wounds. According to Ruttenbur, one of these physicians offered the locals $12 to tap the tree, but they refused him because they feared he would damage it.
Even by the relatively late date of Ruttenbur and Barclay, no one writing about the tree identified it as an Eastern Cottonwood, a tree that was well known to the natives in the region and used for a number of medicinal purposes. In fact, Ruttenbur refers to the tree as being of non-native origin, and for that reason, he tends to favor the historical accounts that posit the tree being deliberately planted by settlers.
By the late 19th century the tree was already “showing evidence of decay.” By 1995, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation had begun actively supporting the tree by constructing an elaborate system of a pole with guide wires to steady it. Some 20 years earlier, its human neighbors had secured a conservation easement for the tree, declaring it a protected plant, and its immediate area became New York state’s smallest state park. At its most mature it was 98 inches in diameter. In 2000 it was placed on the National Registry.
It eventually reached 110 feet tall, but lost some of that during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and had to be trimmed to about 83 feet. Cracks began to appear in its central trunk after this past winter season and due to danger of collapse road traffic around the tree became restricted. After consulting with arborists, it was determined that the tree constituted a present danger to those around it as collapse could come at any time since the main trunk and limbs were mostly hollow. With evident sorrow, the decision was made to cut down the tree on August 5, 2015.
The remaining stump is 15 ft high and 25 feet in circumference. Cuttings were taken from the tree and the neighbors hope they can root them somehow. The area is still protected and a rededication of this tiny nature reserve is planned. As one local put it, “There is no Balmville without the tree.”
So much ado about a tree that settlers couldn’t even identify and yet was all around them in the native forest. According to Evan Pritchard, a native historian who has specialized in the pre-contact history of Newburgh, NY and the surrounding environs, trees of many varieties were often deliberately planted by natives in areas where they frequently gathered so that the qualities of the trees would be available for ritual and medicinal use.
The area around Newburgh, NY held special ritual significance for the local Wappinger native villages and the surrounding forests were festooned with trails, hunting areas and sheltered locations for temporary lodgings.
The fact that tree grew near three intersecting native trails, trails which are duplicated pretty closely by the roads that replaced them, Balmville Rd, River Rd and Commonwealth Ave, could indicate that the area was special in some way. There is a spring near the place where the tree grew, so it had its own water source. And there may have been something specific about the soil.
The two physicians mentioned above had become aware of the medicinal value of Cottonwood, something that the natives knew about full well, so it is quite possible that they picked up this knowledge along the way from originally native sources.
Upon hearing of the immanent removal of the tree, your author and a companion visited the site for ourselves. Many locals were stopping to take pictures of the tree. A man had his young daughter stand in front of it and told her stories about playing around the tree when he was her age.
A young man in a sports car stopped when he realized the road was blocked and told us about how important the tree was to the neighborhood, even though he was slightly annoyed that he had to go around the block. When he heard that the tree might be cut down he was genuinely surprised and moved. “It won’t be the same around here,” he said as he sped away.
Last week a student, who comes from that area, told me about a dream she’d had about the tree when she was much younger. “I was in a forested area sitting at a small table. There were trees all around me. All of a sudden this very pleasant older man came up to me and asked if he could sit down beside me. I was alone with him in the forest, but was completely unafraid. He seemed interested in me and encouraged me to tell him all that was going on in my life at that time–silly kid’s stuff. He was kind of like a grandfather, but he seemed also very wise and quiet–like he knew more stuff than I could possibly imagine. He just sat with me and listened. Just his presence made me feel quiet and comfortable and relaxed. It was a very interesting and pleasant dream–completely unlike other dreams I’d had before. And it was a long time ago, but I’ve always remembered it. For the longest time I had no idea what it was about, until one day, while driving past the tree a few years back, I realized, that the grandfather figure was the tree. Somehow, I’d dreamed about the tree. That’s kind of what the tree means to me, what I think it means to us who live there.”
Numerous individuals in the past few decades have tried to sprout saplings of the tree so that it could be replanted, but the only sprouts that grew had been planted by neighbors of the tree, Richard and Emoke Severo, using the same soil and water which supported the tree. Now that the tree is gone, its neighbors are trying once more. It is hoped that somehow, the tree will rise again, gracing the Newburgh, NY region with its presence. And yes, some of the tree went with us when we left, to become prayer sticks and precious tokens.