BERNARDS TWP., NJ - Sunday's memorial service for the 600-year-old white oak tree that ended its long life in 2016 drew an overflow crowd to the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church - and as at any such service, there were memories shared, and expressions of how much the loved tree will be missed.

"The oldest of trees has been a fixture in Basking Ridge...and one we thought would last forever," said one of the speakers, Bernards Mayor Carol Bianchi.

The tree, already pruned back slightly for safety's sake earlier in October, stands by the also-historic church in the center of Basking Ridge.

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Church to celebrate 300th anniversary without its landmark tree

During the service, the church's pastor, Rev. Dennis Jones, noted that when the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2017, it will be without the silent witness of the towering white oak that was already centuries old before the first church building was built nearby in 1717.

"We gather to honor this tree," said Bill Emmitt, co-chair of the church's Oak Tree task force, before he delivered news. The task force, which also is considering how best to memorialize the town's most recognizable symbol, expects to remove the large and now decaying tree in late winter or early spring, he said.

The tree's size - with a recently measured girth of 19.5 feet - along with the system of cabling and a core of concrete poured into the trunk decades ago as a bulwark, will make removal difficult, Emmitt said.

The Historical Society of Somerset Hills (THSSH) has set up a Go Fund Me site to help defray the cost of the complicated removal of a tree estimated at about 100 feet high. After the service, Emmitt said the specialized tree removal service chosen by the church will help decide just when the tree will come down.

Both Westminster Hall and the church itself were filled to overflow for the 3 p.m. service.

One of the first speakers was church historian George Fricke who said that one of the first references to the big tree was when British Evangelist George Whitefield supposedly drew a crowd of 3,000 to hear him preach by the tree in the 1730s.  A persistent story is that Gen. George Washington rested under its branches while Colonial troops trained in the area.

Fricke also noted that a circa-1920 photo shows a large number of people gathered by the tree to celebrate the Presbyterian Church's 200th anniversary. Soon afterwards, the tree - apparently showing signs of rot - was filled with concrete in 1924 in an effort to shore up its trunk. 

The iconic tree came in for its share of loving care throughout the 20th century and into recent years.

Jones, who grew up in Basking Ridge, said that as a boy he recalls that during a long drought, the fire department made sure that water was poured onto the trees roots to keep it watered and alive.

The tree, its branches sometimes covered with snow, was part of the scene during a tradition that dates back to the early 20th century, the Christmas Eve singalong, he said. 

"The tree is for us a symbol of community and belonging and home," he said. "This is what we all yearn for."

The attendees at the service had their own personal reasons for feeling attached to the tree, which sits in the middle of a cemetery that holds graves including those of Revolutionary War soldiers.

"It was always a mark of home," said Chris Cababe, who is a Basking Ridge resident. He said that getting off the highway and driving by the tree always instilled a feeling that he was home.

"It's so sad to say goodbye to the tree," said Leslie Workman, another resident. "It's such a symbol of our town."

"I never thought I would live to see the day" the tree would be gone, said Alex Stine-Sevey, a former resident who came from Pennsylvania to attend Sunday's service. "I thought it would be here forever."

She said her family had joined the church in 1950. Her mother, a gardener who passed away two years ago, had loved the tree, she said.

"We will miss the tree for more reasons than I can adequately express," Bianch said during her comments. The oak tree leaf is indeed the logo of Bernards Township, she said.

Other speakers talked about having the change of seasons play out perpetually with the oak tree as a palate, and how the tree was backdrop for residents' lives and historic events.

Only some of the trees branches bore leaves this spring, and those that did come out shriveled in the summer, when the tree was finally apparently unable to withstand the summer heat. 

By late summer, following careful examinations of the tree, Jones said at that time that the tree was declared to be dead.

No other tree will be planted at the site of the old oak tree, Emmitt said.

The white oak, or Quercus alba, certainly has been "one of the pre-eminent hardwoods of eastern and central North America. It is a long-lived oak, native to eastern and central North America." But the THSSH website added that there is some controversy over the actual age of the tree.

"It's a miracle to see this great oak specimen has survived and thrived over our our local history for what is said to be approximately 600 years old," says the profile of the oak tree on the THSSH website.