HAVERHILL — As more and more trees are removed along Water Street to open up a view of the Merrimack River, another more famous tree has fallen in the area and those at Buttonwoods Museum are weighing options for its destiny.
The centuries-old Worshipping Oak fell last Thursday night next to the museum at 240 Water St.
Now members of museum's Board of Directors are at a crossroads about what to do with the remains of the tree, which got its name because it was the site used by the first settlers of the city for religious services in 1640 prior to the construction of a church.
"It's a sad, tragic loss. We're trying to do the best we can with what is there," said Dan Meader, vice president of the Buttonwoods Museum, on Wednesday. "The trunk of the tree is still there, but most of the remains are punk. They'll disintegrate in your hand."
Meader said the museum board had a meeting Tuesday night and that a local tree expert examined the remains of the colossal red oak Tuesday.
Meader said it is premature to say exactly what will be done with part of the Worshipping Oak, but that the museum is considering taking some of its remains, turning them into pulp, and making paper to commemorate the Haverhill institution.
"We've accepted an offer from a former museum director, Joanne Sullivan, to plant a new tree on June 27 at the Buttonwoods annual meeting," Meader said.
A decade ago, Meader said the museum was told that the tree had another 75 years to go before it would likely topple over.
Since then, the board had been trying to take pieces of the tree, which had long ceased bearing acorns, to try and graft them together with other oaks to create a new tree.
These efforts, Meader said, did not bear fruit.
"We did a major preservation. We had donations coming in. We tried to make it sustainable," he added. "We figured in 75 years, we'd be gone, but at least we'd done our due diligence."
Asked how the tree perished, Meader said it wasn't a strong wind or any other natural factor that did in the Worshiping Oak: It was time.
"It was supported by only a few inches," he said. "It just kind of rolled and turned. It was just time."
Some of the tree's branches may be sustainable, Meader said, while the trunk remains on the lawn of the museum.
Jay Cleary, a city attorney who has served on the museum's board for 20 years, likened the sight of the tree on the museum's lawn to that of a beached whale. He said losing the tree is akin to New Hampshire's famed "Old Man on the Mountain," an outcrop of rocks on Cannon Mountain, collapsing in 2003.
"Over the years it had to be cut back as branches fell. By the time it fell, it was basically a trunk with branches at the top," Cleary said. "It had badly rotted from the inside over the last 300 years."
Cleary said the idea of turning what remains of the tree into parchment is a unique idea. If some of the remaining wood is strong enough, he'd like to see it turned into a bench.
On Wednesday, Cleary marveled at the amount of Haverhill history clumped together near the museum, including First Landing Park further down Water Street and the Pentucket Cemetary, located next to the museum.
"The first settlers of the area were maybe eight to 12 people from Newburyport. They were traveling up the Merrimack River and the tree might have been the first thing they saw," Cleary said. "It's significant something like that lasted that long."
At the Buttonwoods annual meeting, the Rev. Donna Spencer Collins of the Phoenix Rising Church will preside and it is the hope of the board that some of what remains of the tree will be burned to ash and used to fertilize the new tree provided by Sullivan.
Cleary said the Worshipping Oak was such a Haverhill institution that its image was printed on postcards sent the world over.
"That would be a nice way to remember the old tree — with a new one," he said.
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