On June 6, 2019, at around 6:00 pm, the stately Salem Oak lay down, after standing tall for an estimated 600 years, at home in Salem (N.J.) Meeting’s burial ground, surrounded by her descendants, the town that loved her, and hundreds of deceased Friends. All are grateful to have benefitted over the years from her stately bearing, her endurance, and her deep roots that preceded not only the birth of this nation, but the European settlement of its lands. Struggling against time, gravity, and nature, she had lost several limbs and had required a great deal of care before finally succumbing.
Salem Friends cared lovingly and at great expense for Salem Oak for the last half of her life. This white oak is believed to be a part of the original forest that covered Salem County before Salem was established in 1675 by English Quaker John Fenwick. Legend says that it was under the shade of the Oak’s branches that Fenwick signed a treaty with the local Lenni Lenape, one of the few treaties with Native Americans that was never broken, and Salem Quakers have continued to have a strong relationship with the Lenni Lenape. Fenwick would later build a homestead nearby, and the area around the Oak became a burial ground where Quakers for generations have been and still are being laid to rest.
Her life span was double the 300-year average for white oaks. She witnessed the clearing of her forest home and many other events that history has forgotten, seeing Lenni Lenape, early Quakers, European settlers, free African Americans, and their descendants grow, build, and gather around her. She watched as Revolutionary War soldiers marched through her peaceful town, and impressed Charles Lindbergh with her fall foliage as he flew over Salem on October 21, 1927, on his way to Wilmington, Del., to celebrate his solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. She saw travelers and shipments of goods arriving at the Salem port down the street and witnessed the birth of industry in Salem, as a huge bottling plant was built behind her.
Watching generations bid farewell to their loved ones as they were laid to rest around her, she offered silent comfort to those visiting their deceased friends and family, embracing them with the shelter and cool shade of her vast canopy. She offered a peaceful place for sunrise services, social gatherings, and quiet reflection. Her massive trunk enticed hundreds of children to try to stretch their arms around it, run around it, and hide behind it as they played. She inspired local artists in every medium to try to capture her beauty, her significance, her peacefulness, and her stature.
In 2000, the America the Beautiful Fund named her a Millennium Landmark Tree, recognizing her as one of the top 50 historically significant trees in the country. In 2016, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection declared her the largest white oak in the state, then 103 feet tall, with a circumference of 22 feet, 4 inches. Her crown was fit for royalty, spanning 104 feet.
The Salem Oak is survived by countless descendants. Many of her children are planted in backyards, cemeteries, parks, and along streets throughout Salem City and Salem County. In 1876, one of her seedlings, the Centennial Oak, took root in the First Presbyterian Church’s cemetery on Grant Street in Salem. In 1932, in commemoration of George Washington’s 200th birthday, another of her seedlings was planted along the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia, which leads to Mount Vernon. Since she fell, many past residents of Salem have reached out, stating that they have planted some of her seedlings in the yards of their new homes across the United States. Many institutions, groups, and businesses throughout Salem County adopted her name and her image over the years. She will continue to live on, through her descendants and in the adaptive use of her name and her mighty silhouette.
A memorial service was held in the manner of Friends on June 22, with approximately 150 people in attendance. Many shared stories about their memories of the Oak and what it meant to them. People laughed and cried and came from as far away as California to say goodbye to the Oak. A reception after the service invited guests to peruse Salem Oak mementos and artwork from the personal collections of Salem Meeting members.
She continues to rest in the burial ground of Salem Friends, who are carefully coordinating the safe and respectful removal of the wood from private property and working to make small pieces available to locals as they can. These Friends thank everyone for the outpouring of love and cherished memories that have been shared since she fell. They request the public’s consideration at this time in remaining outside the cemetery walls and having respect for the Oak, the burial grounds, and the families of those buried beneath her. Requests for wood from the Oak can be made to [email protected]. In lieu of flowers, donations to assist with the cost of removing and distributing the Oak can be made to Salem Friends Meeting, PO Box 7, Salem, NJ 08079.