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A look at local history: Collingswood home to one of oldest oak trees in New Jersey

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The white oak tree in front of the Scottish Rite Auditorium on the White Horse Pike is estimated to be about 500 years old, making it one of the oldest in the state. (Photo by Jamie Stow/08108)

The Borough of Collingswood needs a Lorax – stat.

You know, the mythical creature from the Dr. Seuss book of the same name. The little orange guy with the fluffy yellow moustache.

No, the borough isn’t in the midst of an arboreal crisis. In fact it’s quite the opposite. The borough wears its “Tree City USA Community” badge with pride.

The issue, if it can even be called that, comes at the hand of the massive white oak tree on the White Horse Pike in front of the Scottish Rite Auditorium. The giant white oak has been around longer than the United States has had independence from England.

The Lorax, who speaks for the trees, could quite possibly speak on behalf of the oak which has likely seen its fair share of important historical events. Think of the phrase, “If these walls could talk, the stories it could tell,” but instead of walls it is a giant primordial oak tree in the middle of town.

In the meantime, the borough has the next best thing on staff in commissioner Joan Leonard. A commissioner since 1997, she is also the chair of the Collingswood Shade Tree Advisory Board. She was one of the founders of the Collingswood Horticultural Society, too.

The tree in question is estimated to be closer to 500 years old, though popular urban legend says 300, according to Leonard who referenced a report from deceased Collingswood native and tree aficionado David Johnson. 

“He was an expert,” Leonard said. “He did measurements and studies on it [the tree] less than 10 years ago.”

Five hundred years. Think about this: The U.S. declared independence from England 245 years ago in July. The white oak on the White Horse Pike was already 250 years old by the point. Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 – this tree was born roughly 25 years after that.

The borough’s oldest oak tree is pictured earlier this year in front of the Scottish Rite Auditorium. Regardless of the season, the historic tree is an impressive sight. (Photo by Jamie Stow/08108)

For argument’s sake, the tree’s been around since the genesis of recorded North American history. The pilgrims who traveled south from Plymouth Rock? This tree’s seen it.

Scrappy colonial soldiers fighting off the world’s strongest army for our country’s freedom? This tree had a front row seat. 

The same big tree you’ve driven by a thousand times could have been a prime meeting spot along the Underground Railroad.

A piece of breathing American history is right in the borough, and its longevity can be chalked up to one thing – it was left alone.

“Want to know how to keep a tree alive?” Leonard asked rhetorically. “You don’t mess up the earth under the tree.

“There’s a whole ecosystem under the grass. There’s roots, the soil and everything interacting with each other under there; it’s massive. The tree is enormous, the roots are enormous.”

The location of the tree, with respect to the Scottish Rite Auditorium, is calm. A school wasn’t built on the property. Neither was a soccer field. With minimal traffic at best passing through, the tree was left perfectly still to watch and bear witness to the ever changing life around it.

“If you leave a tree to sit on an acre of land, the tree will live,” Leonard added. “Oaks can live a long time. It’s a perfect match of everything around it. God bless it.”

It makes sense that one of, if not the, oldest oak tree in New Jersey is found in Collingswood. Leonard claims Knight Park is home to a handful of trees that are north of 200 years old. And as a proud Tree City USA Community, the borough puts trees at the forefront.

For the past 20 years, the borough celebrates Arbor Day by having the Shade Tree Advisory Board meet with all of the third graders in town to plant seven to 10 trees in Knight Park.

“When you plant a tree with children, you’re teaching the next generation the value of not just planting the tree but appreciating it, interacting with the earth. To take care of nature, to water it, to have a connection to it from your heart,” Leonard said.

The Shade Tree Advisory Committee has planted nearly 3,000 trees since 1997, according to Leonard. All of this is done through the borough budget – it is something that is important and helps maintain the title of a Tree City USA Community.

“Knowing we’ve come so far and done so much and have that title as one of the towns in New Jersey, I feel like we’ve done our part,” Leonard said of being a Tree City USA Community. “We should lead by example and action. Do positive deeds to set that example so people can see and appreciate not just today, but for generations. It means everything to me.”

Because of Leonard’s efforts, future generations will be able to take note of the 500-year-old oak on the White Horse Pike, the handful of 200-year-old trees in Knight Park and even the 1-year-old saplings planted by Collingswood third-graders.

It’s part of what makes Collingswood, Collingswood. 

If the trees could talk, the stories they could tell would be fascinating. Until then, we’ll rely on Leonard to speak on their behalf. 

Until the borough can ink the Lorax to a contract, that is.

ANTHONY J MAZZIOTTI III
ANTHONY J MAZZIOTTI III
Anthony is a graduate of Rowan University and a proud freelance contributor for 08108 magazine. He has past bylines in The Sun Newspapers and the Burlington County Times.

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