The Balmville Tree is a unique specimen to say the least. I first heard about it from colleagues referring to it as “Frankentree.” While it may be more machine now than tree, held together by a steel pole and cables, it’s a sight to behold and well worth a visit.
Below I present the wonderful story of the Balmville Tree, verbatim from the three on-site plaques courtesy of the Friends of the Balmville Tree. I’ve bolded what especially struck me and added a few footnotes and a link to a New York Times article detailing the struggle over this tree’s fate. I hope you enjoy the story.
The Balmville Tree, Photographed July 26th, 2014 in Balmville, New York.
I – THE BALMVILLE TREE
The Balmville Tree is the oldest Eastern Cottonwood on record in the United States. A core sample taken by a Harvard University scientist in 1953 indicated it started growing in 1699. When it began life, Bach was a 14-year old enraptured by the music of Vivaldi, who was a young man of 24, and Shakespeare had been dead for only 83 years.
The Tree is thus older than the American Republic. A 19th century fable held that the Tree sprang from the riding crop1 of George Washington, who made his headquarters in Newburgh in 1783-84. But the Tree began life 33 years before Washington and 9 years before the birth of his mother, Mary Ball Washington.
Situated in a glen at the intersection of what were three old Indian trails and nurtured by a plentiful water supply from the hill that rises to the west of it, the Tree grew quickly and well, achieving in its prime a height of more than 85 feet and a massive circumference of approximately 25 feet. The core sample indicated that by the time Washington rode by the Tree, it was already huge. Eastern Cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) are indigenous to North America and grow rapidly for 75 years or so. Most of them die before they reach the century mark.2 The Balmville Tree was nearing the end of a normal life expectancy in Washington’s time.
The Tree defied all odds by continuing to grow into the 19th century. The people who lived around Newburgh in those days mistakenly thought that it was a Balm of Gilead, an exotic hybrid poplar related to the cottonwood. Hence it was call the “Balm Tree” and the settlement that grew up around it, Balmville. The hamlet of Balmville began to appear on maps in the late 18th century. During the Revolution, there was a tavern near the Tree whose patrons regularly gathered under its shade to sip their brews, denounce King George III and his taxes and talk about the course of the war.
II – THE TREE’S ENVIRONS AND LORE
The shuttered house at 83 Balmville Road, southwest of the Tree and tucked into the hillside on the west side of Balmville Road, was built in the early 18th century (the small carriage house just north of it was built much later). During the Revolution, the house was used by William Bloomer, a blacksmith. Badly in need of repair, it was rehabilitated in 1914 by John Staples, an inventor. Mr. and Mrs. Augustus W. Bennet, who lived in the house in the early 1930’s, called in “Balmtree.” Gus Bennet served as a Congressman from the area in the 1940s. It is believed that Bloomer’s forge was just across the street, immediately south of the Tree, in the front yard of what is now 39 Commonwealth Avenue. Bloomer may have been one of the many Hudson Valley blacksmiths who worked on the chain that rebellious colonials stretched across the Hudson at Fort Montgomery in 1777, in an effort to stop British frigates from sailing northward. The British got through and burned both Fort Montgomery and the state capitol of Kingston in that year.3
As Balmville grew in the 19th century, welcoming such nationally famous figures as landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, there was much lore about the Tree. One story was that when Matthew Vassar was down and out4, he slept under the Tree and got such a good rest that he was able to continue his trek to Poughkeepsie, establish a brewery and acquire enough wealth to establish a college of note in 1865. By the late 19th century, the Tree was beloved by City of Newburgh residents. They began a Sunday afternoon tradition of taking a walk out to the Tree.5 The Balmville Promenade continued well into the 20th century.
III – THE TREE’S ADMIRERS
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the second President to be counted among the many admirers of the Balmville Tree. He is known to have stopped to view it many times when he came to Balmville from Hyde Park to visit his uncle, Col. Frederic Delano, who lived nearby in an estate that is now Susan Drive. But in the 20th century, some local officials advocated the destruction of the Tree. They called it an eyesore and an impediment to the swift flow of traffic. The Tree had friends, however, among them Colonel Delano in the 1920s and the Goudy Wildlife Club through the 1970s. Club members raised money to pay for cabling that the Tree needed.
At the behest of the Tree’s admirers, State Environmental Commissioner Ogden R. Reid decided in 1976 to make the Tree the first individually protected tree in New York State history. The State then created a permanent easement around the Tree so that no excavating could be done within 150 feet of it without State permission.
In 1995, a patch of roadway just south of the Tree was sealed off an a fieldstone wall was constructed to protect the Tree and what had become the State’s smallest forest. Since all trees lose limbs from time to time, a custom-built steel pole was erected immediately west of the Tree. The steel guy wires mitigate the weight of the limbs and give them their own drop zone. The money for this was raised privately by friends of the Tree locally and from around the United States. The friends are too numerous to be listed here. The State Department of Environmental Conservation agreed to provide feeding, maintenance and general care of the site in perpetuity.
Why was the the Balmville Tree able to live more than three times its normal life expectancy? Nobody is certain, although some of the most respected botanists in the United States have studied its leaves, bark, genetic structure and general health. It is not only the oldest cottonwood in record – it is the most mysterious. If and when it dies, it will hopefully be replaced by one of its offspring, grown from cuttings of the original. And so there will always be a Balmville Tree.
PLACED HERE BY FRIENDS OF THE BALMVILLE TREE UPON THE OCCASION OF ITS 300th ANNIVERSARY
1 riding crop?
2 I’m a bit skeptical of this statement. I’ve seen a good number of giant cottonwoods that I’m guessing are more than 100 years old.
3 Just 10 miles north of my hometown. I know of one historic stone house where the char marks can still be seen on its beams.
5 A therapeutic ritual I recommend to everyone. Find a local tree and pay it a regular visit.
A fourth plaque at the site reads:
The Balmville Tree was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior in 2000. It was also listed as a New York State Historic Site by the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The Tree and its site are maintained by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in cooperation with the Balmville Citizens Association and other individuals and groups across the country.
Thank you Friends of the Balmville Tree for working to find a solution to preserve this amazing tree and piece of American history. You are a testament to faithful stewardship.
If you’d like to visit the Balmville Tree, it’s located at the intersection of River Road, Balmville Road and Commonwealth Avenue in Balmville, New York in the Town of Newburgh. (A quick and easy stop off I-87)