The Salem Oak, the largest white oak in New Jersey whose age was estimated to be 565, died June 6 of “stem failure.” She was surrounded by her offspring and the city that cherished her.
Upon hearing the news of her demise, one former Salem County resident drove from New York City to pay respects. Another came all the way from Michigan.
Even two weeks after the tree’s death — the oak toppled over in a Salem cemetery — the community continues to mourn the loss of the landmark. Many need an outlet for their grief.
On Saturday afternoon, the Religious Society of Friends in Salem will provide just that.
The Salem Friends, who own the West Broadway property where the tree stood, have invited the public to the group’s meeting house for a traditional Quaker memorial service.
“We realize that a lot of people in the community, people who are current or past residents of Salem had a really strong connection to the tree,” said Jessica Waddington, a member of the Salem Oak Subcommittee of the Salem Friends Meeting.
The historic tree anchors itself at the center of local history. Salem legend maintains that the tree provided shade to John Fenwick, an English Quaker and the city’s founder, as he signed a treaty with native Leni-Lenape in 1675.
The tree serves as the namesake of the diner across the street from the cemetery and of the Salem High School newspaper.
Since the oak’s death, the Salem Friends have collected small parts of the tree, including seedlings and leaves they have handed out to visitors.
Early plans had called for the tree’s removal by Saturday. But two tornadoes that tore through South Jersey earlier this month have tied up local arborists, many of whom are still working to clean up the storm damage.
The Salem Friends are still accepting bids from these businesses to move the oak’s remnants from the cemetery. Once the tree has been moved, the wood will be assessed to evaluate how usable the bark is.
Several groups have expressed interest in the tree’s wood — for both scholastic and sentimental purposes. Colleges and universities have requested to study the tree.
Many community members have asked the Friends for pieces of the oak. Some are woodworkers. Others simply want a memento.
“People want every little piece of this,” said Preston Carpenter, a member of Salem Friends.
Waddington said the tree, as is, lies in a “sensitive position.”
She worries about weather damage and possible harm brought by the curious seeking a piece of the tree. She said there have been two reports of trespassing, one within a few days of the tree’s fall and another last weekend.
The Salem Friends now try to maintain a round-the-clock guard of the tree. Waddington said most lookouts are Friends or “friends of Friends.” They ensure nobody enters the burial site, where the tree’s branches precariously support it.
“People want a piece. People want to take pictures. People just want to get at it,” she said. “But, unfortunately, it’s not in a place where it should be.”
The memorial service will take place at the Salem Friends Meeting house, a few blocks away from the tree.
The service will begin around 2 p.m. with the Friend’s explanation of a traditional Quaker service and a brief history of the tree. Those present will then be able to share memories of the beloved oak.
“It’s very informal… but it also tends to be more personal than most memorial services,” Waddington said.
The Salem Oak is survived by several offspring, including the Centennial Oak — planted in another Salem cemetery — and another located along the George Washington Memorial Parkway en route to Mount Vernon.