Over the years, the white oak tree that’s overlooked the Schoharie Valley from a hilltop since before the American Revolution became more than a mascot for the George Landis Arboretum.
It’s served as the site of weddings and peaceful sunset gatherings and the feature of various works of art.
For more than 400 years, the Great Oak endured harsh Northeast winters and drought and survived threats from disease like sudden oak death, Gypsy moths and oak wilt.
But the tropical storm called Irene proved too much for the tree in late August.
High winds dealt a crippling blow to it’s grand canopy, tearing off a massive limb and leaving a shell of what it once was.
“It means a real lot to a real lot of people,” said arboretum Director Fred Breglia, who married his wife, Erin, beneath the tree three years ago.
The Great Oak has been a feature of the site since the early 1900s, when the father of arboretum founder Fred Lape bought the property and named it Oak Nose Farm after the proud hardwood that sits on a knoll.
But its gradual demise has sprouted new ideas, including plans for some new maps that will lead guests deeper into the 548-acre arboretum’s forests, where other trees, some almost as grand as the Great Oak, await attention.
And remains of the tree — including pieces of trunk-sized branches that crashed to the ground — are being crafted into gifts expected to serve as a symbolic fundraiser for the region’s only public tree garden.
Volunteers skilled at woodworking gathered four loads of remains in pickup trucks, and artist Phil Adams has already carved bottletops, a bowl and drumsticks out of some pieces.
Breglia likens the new oak artwork gifts to making lemonade from lemons. Despite the Great Oak’s resultant condition, damage could have been worse for the organization that operates off a roughly $100,000 budget.
Breglia had already received messages from people alerting him “the oak was down” when he got to the arboretum following the Aug. 28 arrival of Tropical Storm Irene and saw the gaping hole in the skyline left by the loss of the tree’s canopy.
Runoff from massive rainfall Aug. 28 tore up the parking lot and covered the site’s eight miles of trails with blown-down branches and numerous smaller trees. Numerous trails served by culverts were also torn up and needed repair.
The parking lot was repaired before remnants of Tropical Storm Lee sent more rainfall cascading through, leaving it to be fixed again, Breglia said, thanks to the help of volunteers and the town of Esperance.
Long before the storms, Breglia said people knew the Great Oak’s days were numbered. At more than 400 years old, the tree spent about 150 years growing, another 150 just living and the rest of its life dying.
“We knew the Great Oak wasn’t going to be there forever,” he said.
The nonprofit group’s board and Breglia decided to add an icon to the site’s newest map, pointing to Big Red, a big red oak tree that’s likely 300 years old and sits close to the white oak.
A new map, which Breglia hopes to have completed in time for the arboretum’s annual spring plant sale, will include Big Red and the Twin Oaks — a duo of red and white oaks that sit just 300 feet from the Woodland Trail. They are just a couple of old trees Breglia suspects haven’t garnered much attention.
Volunteers will clear out paths to trees they’ll feature in the map brochure, titled “The Great Oaks of the Landis Arboretum,” so people can find them. The map will make use of GPS coordinates to make it easier for people to find more than two-dozen centuries-old trees, some of which sit quietly in the arboretum’s Old Growth Forests, far off the trails’ beaten paths.
The map, along with artwork honed from remains of the Great Oak, should be available in time for the plant sale, a primary fundraiser held the first weekend after Mother’s Day.
Meanwhile, Breglia said other work is taking place in the background. He and volunteers have been searching for acorns on the ground beneath the Great Oak, with plans to ensure its progeny lives on.
More information about the arboretum can be found on the Internet at http://www.landisarboretum.org.