Wilton’s history of historic trees

Wilton has been designated a Tree City by the Arbor Day Foundation and State of Connecticut since 2009 and one of its trees — a centuries-old white oak tree off Danbury Road — was recently added to Connecticut's Notable Tree List.

But did you know Wilton was once home to seven historic trees — only one of which still stands today?

There was the “Rare Cottonwood” at the intersection of Kent Road and Route 7 that was taken down during the widening of Route 7 in 1984. Another was the “Gallows Oak” at 652 Ridgefield Road, which was taken down around 1960 after becoming too weak from cars crashing into it.

Like the Rare Cottonwood and Gallows Oak, most of the trees deemed historic by the Wilton Historical Society were felled by natural causes and to clear space for development, but one still stands today — the Gaylord Oak.

The 150-foot white oak tree on the corner of Wolfpit Road and Route 7, near Gaylord Drive South, existed even before the arrival of Wilton’s first settlers.

The tree also marks the site of the first Wilton Congregational Church parish house, built in the late-1720s.

The parish house was rebuilt in 1931 and moved to the corner of Westport Road and Downe Lane in 1971, but its stone foundation, as well as the massive oak, still mark its original site, according to town historian, history room curator and Wilton’s 2016 tree steward Carol Russell.

Wilton’s other historic trees included the “Constitutional Oak” in front of town hall, the “Big Elm” on Belden Hill Road, the “Big Chestnut” on Bald Hill Road, and “Meeting House Oak” at the intersection of Danbury and Cannon roads.

Constitutional Oak

Following a 1902 state constitutional convention in Hartford, a seedling pin oak was presented to each delegate, including Rep. Henry E. Chinchester of Wilton, with the understanding they would each be known as the “Constitutional Oak.”

The name symbolized the “strength and cooperation” of Connecticut towns in their support of the Constitution, according to a 1938 issue of The Wilton Bulletin.

Chinchester had the seedling planted in front of the Old Town Hall on Ridgefield Road. In 1938, the 40-year-old oak was re-planted directly in front of Wilton’s new town hall on Danbury Road.

In July 1991, a severe storm uprooted the 89-year-old pin oak and the Department of Public Works divided the tree’s remains into large logs. The following year, Wilton cabinetmaker John R. Lawrence used wood from the tree to build a desk, which he donated to the Wilton Historical Society.

The Big Elm

On the west side of Belden Hill Road near the Wolfpit Road intersection stood what was once considered the largest elm tree in the state of Connecticut — the Big Elm.

The tree — also referred to as the “Benedict Elm and “Wayside Elm” in historical documents — was believed to have been transplanted by a Mr. James around 1808.

The elm’s circumference measured about 14 feet and 11 ¾ inches and its spread was estimated to be 105 feet. Seats were erected between the limbs of the elm tree, which people could access by climbing a ladder placed along the tree.

In 1899, the tree’s longest limb reached 62 feet from its body, according to a Connecticut Board of Agriculture report.

The Big Elm Farm, which used to be at the southeast corner of Belden Hill and Wolfpit roads, was named after the majestic tree that stood on the property.

Russell said the elm was taken down by the time she and her husband, town historian and former first selectman Bob Russell, moved to Wilton in 1969.

The Big Chestnut

The Big Chestnut was a more-than-200-year-old chestnut tree at the lower end of Bald Hill Road.

It had a circumference of 20 feet and eight inches, according to late Wilton historian David Van Hoosear, and three large limbs about 10 feet above the ground.

According to Van Hoosear, legend was that when the Keeler family first moved to Bald Hill, a Native-American chief told them the tree had been a tribe landmark for years.

A strong wind broke off a large portion in 1893, but the tree still survived another 95 years until it was struck down by lightning in 1988.

Meeting House Oak

On the east side of Danbury Road near the Cannon Road intersection once stood a 45-inch diameter white oak known as the Meeting House Oak.

The tree’s name derived from its use as “a prominent place on a frequently traversed road to post notices of the town meetings,” according to a Wilton Library History Room document written by Russell.

In the 1870s deeds of Charles Cannon, the tree was referred to as “the colonial oak,” according to Russell, “indicating that even 100 years ago, it was a significant landmark.”

According to Russell, the tree had also been referred to as the “Wilton Charter Oak.”

In a March 1984 letter to Public Works Director Tom Thurkettle, Russell expressed concern about the Meeting House Oak after she had seen trees and shrubs being removed from the area during the widening of Route 7.

“My concern is for the survival of the historic white oak standing on the side of the road as it has for many years,” wrote Russell, adding that the widening of Route 7 was a “substantial threat” to the tree’s existence. “I call this to your attention in case there comes a time when you may be able to intervene to preserve a part of Wilton history.”

In July 1989, Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) personnel evaluated the tree and determined that it was “live and in good condition,” according to history room documents.

A few months later, concerned residents called Russell because the Meeting House Oak appeared to be losing leaves and some of its branches looked dead.

According to an October 1989 letter to the DOT, Russell wrote that a resident reported seeing a service truck drive up to the oak and “cut the be-Jesus out of it.”

“Not only were the apparently dead branches removed from the side toward the road, but many of the healthy-looking branches were removed,” Russell wrote, adding that poison ivy was also reportedly “cut with a chainsaw, leaving large gashes in the trunk.”

Although the Meeting House Oak “barely survived” an earlier expansion of Route 7, according to a 1999 Wilton Bulletin article, Russell told The Bulletin it was eventually taken down by the state to make way for the highway.