Monday, October 19, 2015

The Black Walnut Tree: Trying to Find the History of a Tree

If you've been here, you've seen; you just might not realize it.  Clermont is home to one of the oldest black walnut trees in New York State.  Depending on who you talk to you, it might be the oldest, the second oldest, or possibly the third oldest.

Either way--it's old!  It's been estimated that it's somewhere around 240 years old, which means it was a little sapling when Margaret Beekman Livingston was watching her house get rebuilt in 1778.

This monster of a tree reaches its craggy branches up over the towering roof of the mansion's South Wing, offering shade in the summer, and dropping great big green-coated walnuts down from the sky every fall (Honoria used to wear a hard hat near there when she got older to protect her head!).  It is natural landmark and one of the first things you see when you come walking down the Lilac Walk on your way to the house.  It's a bit of a natural wonder to stand at the foot of it and realize how very big it really is.

We love this tree.  But it's a living thing, and well--it's getting old.  Almost every year, we have the tree examined by arborists to ensure that it is still safe, and we know that it's life is running out.  The time will come when the tree will have to be removed for safety's sake.

Thinking about this made me think about looking for the tree in historic documentation.  What history can you find about a tree?

The easiest image to spot was this one from around 1908 to 1910.  Alice photographed her newly-turned patch of dirt that would become the Spring Garden, and there is our old friend the Black Walnut.  Even over 100 years ago, it is tall enough to tower above 5 stories of house (since it sits on level with the basement).

Some 30 years earlier around 1775, the second-story addition to Clermont's south wing had not yet been built.  The walnut tree stands proudly shading the bedrooms below it while someone--maybe John Henry?--relaxes on a bench overlooking the river.

Now we are treading into territory where photographs are few.  The only photo I have of the house in the 1860s id from the wrong angle, and you can't see the tree at all.  Nevertheless, if you're will to trust a drawing, there is an image from around the same time that may show the black walnut, tall and proud off the southern corner of the house.  In the 19th century, it was clearly old, but not quite the Grande Dame that it is now.

My last possible "spotting" is from the 1790s.  A drawing by a visitor captured a clutch of trees off the mansion's south corner.  Could one of these possibly be our Black Walnut tree?  Was it once surrounded by other walnuts waving in the breeze and dropping little bombs on passers-by every fall?  I like to think so.

So there you have it--the history of a tree.  There is something a little comforting in following the history of our tree friend--even if we know that we will have to let go in a few years.


  1. Take one year at a time and have (free) consultations by at least three arborists before making that decision. Nice article!

  2. Thanks--That's actually our plan. We value the tree highly and have to balance its historical importance with public safety!

  3. The tree has gone and so has all of that history. What did the State biologist say about the tree that led to it's removal? Did you save some of the tree so that the rings can be counted and used for educational purposes? What are you doing with the rest of the wood?
    Thank you.