BERNARDS TWP., NJ - This may be the first spring in 600 years that Basking Ridge's old white oak hasn't budded. 

In fact, the removal of the lifeless tree -- the symbol of Bernards Township, the sentinel of the Presbyterian Church's historic cemetery, and the namesake of the nearby Oak Street School -- began on Monday morning. A portion of East Oak Street directly in front of the church will remain closed while the project continues for the next day or so.

A crane parked on East Oak Street lifted the giant branches from the towering treetop as each was removed. Here is a video of one such moments. 

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Residents of Basking Ridge and some nearby communities gathered by to watch the tree as it was being cut down, reminiscing about the moments that they and their children had seen the tree go through the seasons of its life, and their own.

"All my children went to Tree House [the preschool on church property]," said nearby resident Lisa Dudzik. "It's just a part of our past."

Meredith and Caroline Donnelly, two current students who attend the Oak Street Elementary School - closed for spring vacation this week along with all township schools -- walked over to the church's front steps with their dad to watch the end of a chapter of local history.

Two-day project expected

Keith Keiling, owner of Keiling Tree Care in Basking Ridge, said he expects the removal of the tree will be finished on Tuesday, despite predicted rain.

Keiling Tree Care's experts were among those who examined the tree in the past year, to see if there was any way to save it, before it was determined to be dead late last summer.

As others have before, Keiling said on Monday morning he believed the tree died of old age.

Nevertheless, Bernards Township Committeeman John Malay, who was at the scene on Monday morning with his wife, Jan, said, "It's going to be a loss."

Even though the town has known for many months the tree would soon be gone, that doesn't make its coming absence any easier, Malay observed.

Both Malay and Township Administrator Bruce McArthur, who is also a local resident, said they expected that the tree's removal would be a fairly slow process. They noted that the trunk of the huge tree is filled with concrete, the result of an earlier lifesaving measure from many decades ago.

Despite the concrete trunk and the crutches that also have held up some of the heavy limbs for much of the 20th century, and into this one, local residents remembered when the tree was in full leaf, and apparent health, not that many years ago.

"This was a gorgeous tree," said Hubi Periera, a Basking Ridge resident since 1969. She said the death of the tree was "terrible," although she nevertheless admired the job the tree service was doing to accomplish its removal.

"It was exceptionally beautiful," Dudzik said, adding that sometimes, "It was like something you didn't believe was real."

"Everyone knew the tree," Periera said, and indeed not everyone who at the church on Monday morning was from Basking Ridge.

Sarah Eckhard of Hillsborough said she had traveled to see the tree months ago, when she heard it was "getting sick." 

The tree, she noted, has "seen so much."