NEW BRAINTREE'S GENTLE GIANT
By Kim Ring TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
NEW BRAINTREE — Every time a nasty weather event rolled through this tiny town, residents pulled themselves together and headed for Bridge Road to check on a centuries-old oak tree, always finding it unscathed. The tree is on a wooded lot about a quarter mile off the dirt road.
It survived a 2007 tornado, a particularly nasty winter a few years ago and last year’s harrowing Halloween storm that killed plenty of oaks when their clinging leaves gathered the weighty snow and pulled them down.
But in the end, New Braintree’s beloved tree was felled not by nature but by the hands of an arsonist.
A fire recently burned through the middle of the tree. When its trunk, hollowed by age, gave way, the 100-foot canopy fell to the ground, branches spread out around a charred center. “It was intentionally set,” Fire Chief Dennis Letendre said. “I think people were up there partying. They probably had a fire going inside the tree and they left it. Thankfully, it went out by itself.”
The tree was, for years, the state’s champion for that species, meaning it was the biggest white oak in Massachusetts.
In 1983, on Arbor Day, children from the local elementary school hiked to the tree and sat around it with politicians and dignitaries extolling its virtues. In 2000, it had a circumference of 247 inches at 4-1/2 feet from the ground. It was nearly 100 feet tall and the canopy stretched 100 feet as well.
And while it held an impressive title, to folks in this small Central Massachusetts town it was more than just a big tree.
“It’s such a loss, I cannot even comprehend it,” said Jennie Hope, who grew up a stone’s throw from the tree and is raising her family nearby. “I don’t even want to see it yet.”
Her young daughter Reghan cried when she heard the news. She walked to the site and snapped pictures with her cellphone camera, promising not to show them to her mother yet.
“To think someone deliberately set it and deliberately left it,” Mrs. Hope said. “It gives you that sick-to-your-stomach feeling.”
It was Stephen Taylor, training for a triathlon, who found the damage while out for a run and had his wife call the police. Octavia Taylor wants to believe that lightning took down the tree, but the fire chief said that’s been ruled out as far as he’s concerned.
The trash inside the tree, a glass bottle, melted from the heat and other evidence he won’t discuss make him believe the fire was no accident.
“I’m just appalled,” Mrs. Taylor said. “It was such a special thing to so many people. Even hundreds of years ago, people saw how powerful that tree was and they didn’t take it down. This is so sad.”
No one is sure exactly when the fire happened, although a letterbox near the tree was visited on July 30. The people who checked in wrote only their name — the Shaw family — and made no mention of the tree being burned.
Efforts to find the family have been unsuccessful, and the fire chief said he would like to talk to them to be sure the tree was still intact when they visited.
The area is popular with ATV riders, hikers, geocachers and letterboxers. Sometimes it’s too popular, with people leaving their cars alongside local streets to walk to the trail that leads to the tree, Mrs. Hope said.
In 2000, after an arborist determined some of the heavy branches were putting the tree at risk, it was meticulously trimmed. A piece of one of the limbs was sanded, polished and given to state Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, D-Barre, who uses it as a gavel at the Statehouse.
“This is gruesomely hurtful,” Mr. Brewer said when he heard about the fire. “That tree was here when the Pilgrims were here. … The stories that tree could tell.”
He said the great oak reminds him of a children’s story — “The Giving Tree,” by Shel Silverstein, in which a tree gives all of itself to a boy who returns in the end to sit on its stump. The story ends with the line, “and the tree is very happy.” He said he hopes the oak’s roots are strong and might send up new shoots that could grow another great tree 100 years from now.
Mrs. Hope said what’s frustrating is that the tree really can’t be quickly replaced and she can’t imagine a just punishment for the person responsible.
“It’s not like they broke a statue or something and we can make them buy a new one,” she said, adding that she hopes the person will be wracked with guilt and “just ’fess up.”
The property where the tree is located is owned by the Salem family that operates Salem Cross Inn in West Brookfield. When the tree was designated a champion, they opened the area so folks could hike to it and enjoy it. On holidays, some families gather and make a pilgrimage to the tree, photographing children around it or on its branches.
That’s something Cyrus Glidden had hoped to do one day when he has children of his own.
“We grew up under that tree,” he said. “There’s no other way of saying how you feel about it except to say it’s too bad someone would do this and I don’t think anyone from this town would do it.”
Mr. Glidden, 26, who works for Northern Tree Co., said he and his father, Robert Glidden Jr., took a close look at the burned tree, and neither believes lightning did the damage.
“We didn’t expect to see what we saw,” he said. “The tree got a slow start this year after the winter we had and the dry weather. But there it was with big green leaves on it now, and they’re turning brown.”
Robert Glidden so loved the tree, his contracting business, Great Oak Services, is named for it.
“That tree was priceless and as far as I’m concerned, the way everybody feels about the tree, you might as well have burned down the church,” Cyrus Glidden said. The Police and Fire departments will receive some assistance from the state fire marshal in their investigation, Chief Letendre said. He said he understands and shares the anger felt across the community. He grew up in town and took field trips to the oak from elementary school.
He wants to find those responsible and urged anyone with information to call him at (508) 847-0405.