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Scarlet Oak’s demise and removal signals sadness and an occasion for celebration

Loss of life can inspire wide-ranging emotion — intense sadness and grief, also often occasioned by the opportunity to celebrate a life well lived. Such a unique time is upon the seminary.

Scarlet OakMonday, July 20, 2015, marked an historic loss for the seminary and its family when the majestic Scarlet Oak, located on the campus between The Brossman Learning Center, Schaeffer-Ashmead Chapel, and Hagan Hall, was taken down.

Scarlet OakThe landmark tree had furnished shade for every seminarian, faculty member, and staffer in the campus family since the school came to Mt. Airy in 1888. Sadly, the tree had been losing vitality in recent seasons and suffered storm damage several years ago. Three arborists consulted by the school had concurred the proud oak could no longer safely stand, and on a warm, intensely humid summer day, Clauser Tree Care of Philadelphia began an 11-hour process to remove it. “It is the largest project I have ever undertaken,” explained Cesar Mora, the Clauser tree foreman who oversaw the exhaustive removal.

The age of the tree is somewhat debated. In his web-based electronic tour of 11 campus trees more than a decade ago, then LTSP campus horticulturalist Keith Lingenfelter explained the tree could likely be 300 to 350 years old, dating it back to the 1600s. One of Lingenfelter’s assistants, Jason Jackson, nominated the tree to be considered for addition to an ancient trees list called the “Eastern Old List.” The nomination led to a campus visit in 2007 by arborist Scott Wade of Longwood Gardens. Wade assessed and measured the tree according to Eastern National Tree Society standards using a laser clinometer. In 2007 the tree had a circumference at the trunk of 179 inches (4.5 feet). It had a canopy spread of 111 feet and stood 95.2 feet high. And the tree made the list.

In his background on the database for the Eastern Old List, ecologist Neil Pederson of Harvard University noted that the seminary tree’s age is “well-documented through the written record.” While the exact source of that record is still being researched, the record, according to the aforementioned web site,  indicates the tree was planted in 1795 during the time of George Washington, making it 220 years old at the time of its removal, considerably less old than Lingenfelter’s online estimate. Another way of determining the tree’s age is through extrapolations based on ring measurements. Andrew DeGothseir, who helped manage the tree’s care from 2010-2013  and who serves now as the horticulturalist and campus gardener for Germantown Friends School, said ring extrapolations can be a challenge requiring special expertise. Explaining he is not qualified to do such an extrapolation, DeGothseir said, “There are sometimes factors that alter the amount of rings a tree can produce in a year that only a (particular kind of) professional can determine.” Scott Wade is such a professional, and he is planning a trip soon to the campus that will hopefully yield more precise information about the tree’s age.

Scarlet Oak in 2006One thing is not in dispute. At the time of its removal, the LTSP Scarlet Oak was the oldest tree of its kind on record. (This technically does not mean there is not an older Scarlet Oak around somewhere, but there is no official record of such a tree.) The second oldest, now the oldest, tree of its type on record, is in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia. That tree is about 180 years old.

What killed the old tree? The subject is shrouded in a bit of campus controversy. When the construction for The Brossman Learning Center began, excavation along the eastern edge of the tree’s root system caused great concern. The Learning Center’s footprint extended beyond the original outline of the 1888 dormitory to accommodate the dimensions for Benbow Hall on the first floor and rooms 201 and 301 on Brossman’s second and third floors. Retired seminary Professor Richard Stewart, who served on the Brossman construction team, recalls looking at the excavation at its outset and seeing that it encroached “two to three inches” into the old tree’s secondary root system. “It was not much of an encroachment,” he recalled, “but it was an encroachment.” Stewart served on the committee to advise on technology concerns for the center.

The Rev. Glenn Miller, an LTSP vice president for development during the construction and its project manager, agreed with Stewart about the level of encroachment, but quickly added that the inspirational and compassionate concern by Registrar Emeritus Dr. John Kaufmann for all aspects of the campus during the construction made a major difference in decisions accorded to the care of the tree, then and since.

Kaufmann, with an engineering degree from Lehigh University, “was by my side for every meeting of that committee,” recalled Miller, now a vice president for Lutheran Social Services South in York, Pennsylvania. The footprint of the new structure was not changed to accommodate the tree, Miller said.  “But without the passionate concern expressed by John, I think it is probable we might not have done all we did to treat and care for the tree.” Stewart added, “John had a way of saying you don’t want to mess with something that was alive at the time of George Washington.”

DeGothseir believes, even though he was not on campus at the time of construction, that the excavation along the tree’s east side began its downward spiral. He added that the tree “was taken care of meticulously during my three years at LTSP. We did everything we could to prolong its life.”

The crew after removing the Scarlet OakBut was the excavation the only factor in the tree’s demise? Perhaps not. Disease and old age may also have been factors. Removal of the tree revealed substantial rotting, perhaps the size of an irregular utility pole, at the trunk’s center.

Treatments furnished by Bartlett Tree Experts and Sauers Tree, Inc., provided systemic soil treatments dating to the middle part of the last decade through 2012, according to records. A goal, according to invoices, was to “suppress ambrosia beetles, leafhoppers, and chestnut borers (insects) and deal with Bacterial Leaf Scorch.”

In the end, all the efforts were in vain. “But we always knew the tree was at risk,” Miller recalled.

“I am sorry to hear about the tree,” said Pederson, who has done so much work during his career to maintain databases for “ancient” trees. “For a Scarlet Oak it was an especially nice tree. They often do not live [as] long as the seminary tree did, and Scarlet Oaks seem a bit susceptible to disease versus other oaks.

Section of the Scarlet Oak“I would suggest saving the most solid parts of the trunk for future use — plaques for awards or the like,” Pederson said. Reusing these important trees for special situations and awards is one of the best uses when they begin their ultimate demise.”

Campus space where the Scarlet Oak stoodConsiderable portions of the old tree were set aside to be preserved on campus during its removal, and Vice President David Grafton said: “Once the students return for the fall semester we will be looking for ways to commemorate and rededicate this important and historic space on campus.”

The old Scarlet Oak was not the only unique tree remaining on the campus. Kaufmann once related that many seedlings were brought to the campus from Asia during the first half of the last century, to be planted in a similar climate to their native habitat. They include a thriving Japanese Maple located along the sidewalk that runs toward the rear of Wiedemann from Hagan Hall. Sadly, old age threatens other trees on the 13-acre campus. But the campus remains a proud urban forest.

The Scarlet Oak through the years

from the Last Day of the Scarlet Oak in pictures

Share your memories of the Scarlet Oak in the Comments. If you have photos, share them by emailing to communications@Ltsp.edu.

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