The majestic white oak had stood at George Washington’s Mount Vernon for about 240 years until it fell on a windless night last November. It had witnessed the passing of history, as Civil War soldiers carved in its bark, and “all living things were blessed by its fruit,” the chaplain said.
It was 115 feet tall and 12 feet around, and Wednesday morning, a requiem was held before it was consigned to the sawyers.
Cicadas droned and sunlight shined through the foliage, as Navy Lt. Brandy Brown quoted from the Book of Job: “For there is hope for a tree if it be cut down, that it will sprout again and that its shoots will not cease.”
After the prayer, Dean Norton, Mount Vernon’s director of horticulture, said: “When you take a tree of this historic nature and … do some real special ceremonies … it honors the tree. I think it’s wonderful.”
And it did not fall in vain, he said.
The wood was being used for repairs at Mount Vernon and to make a drum and the long ceremonial spears called espontoons for the Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry, known as “The Old Guard.”
Some of its members, clad in Colonial-era uniforms, were on hand Wednesday with their stubby howitzer and the light-blue flag with white stars that signified George Washington.
The wood was also going to help restore the old presidential yacht, Sequoia, now in private hands and getting an overhaul in Maine, said the owner, L. Michael Cantor.
“This oak, even in its death, lives again, because of the divine plan set forth for when it was but an acorn,” Brown prayed.
Just before 9:30 a.m., Dave Seitz, president of Black Horse Forge, a veterans and first responders support group that helped do the cutting, slowly pushed the powerful band saw across a side of the tree and sliced off a slab of pale wood.
The tree was so big it had to be adjusted in place with a small fork lift, which seemed to strain under its weight. And the Black Horse crew had to chop away some bark to make it fit better through the saw, which was powered by a 35-horsepower engine.
“It’s a big, hard piece of lumber,” said Amy Hotz, secretary of Black Horse Forge. (Earlier ceremonial cuts with a two-person crosscut saw had been difficult.)
Said Seitz: “The grain in some of [the slabs] was just magnificent.”
The trunk, which rested in a clearing, was only part of the aged tree.
The rest of it lay where it had fallen along a nearby roadway — its roots gnarled, its bark still bearing the unit insignia carved by Union soldiers, most likely in 1865.
Washington owned the Mount Vernon plantation, along with its home and more than 100 enslaved people, from 1761 until he died in 1799. He and his wife, Martha, are buried on the property, which is on the Potomac River about 15 miles south of D.C.
Washington probably planted three of the oaks as saplings in a landscaping project about 1780, Norton, the horticulturalist, said.
“Washington loved trees of all sorts,” and had scoured his estate for the kinds he wanted for his walkways and groves, he said.
The three trees were there when he returned to Mount Vernon in 1783, triumphant after his victory in the Revolutionary War.
They were there on the estate in 1787 when he left for the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and grew during his terms as the country’s first president. They were there when he came home for good.
In 1865, Union soldiers passed through just as the Civil War ended. They probably etched in the bark the cross and the five-pointed star, apparently the insignia of two Army corps, that are still there, Norton said.
The last of Washington’s descendants left Mount Vernon in 1860 and the dilapidated estate was purchased that year by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which still owns and maintains it.
When the Civil War broke out the next year, Mount Vernon, although in the seceded state of Virginia, became neutral ground.
The area was controlled by Union forces, but visiting soldiers were required to leave their weapons at the gate, said Susan P. Schoelwer, Mount Vernon’s collections director and senior curator. “So they would be coming here peaceably,” she said.
“During the war, virtually the only visitors they had here were troops,” she said.
They were asked to cover their uniforms, “so they would wrap in shawls or blankets so their uniform wasn’t showing,” she said. “There was a real effort to make this a neutral national shrine during this period of conflict.”
All this time, as the war was fought, and the nation tried to heal and then move into the next centuries, the three trees stood.
About 40 years ago, the first one fell, Norton said. Two years ago, the second one fell, and its wood was reused.
This was the last, he said.
“It’s sad to see the final one go,” he said. “But [it’s] … a marvelous way to say goodbye.”