Sunday, September 12, 2010

Leafy History: The Beech Tree of Alexander Bane

Sunday, September 12, 2010
Susan reports:

I live near Philadelphia, an area that fair bristles with historic landmark signs, but there's only one that I know that honors a tree. To be sure, it's a very old tree, an enormous European beech - Fagus sylvatica - whose gnarled serpentine branches spread and sprawl in every direction, and defied my attempts to fit it into a single photograph. The last time the tree was officially measured, in 2006, experts determined it to be more than 80 feet tall with a 90 foot spread and a trunk circumference of 190 inches, sufficient to earn designation as a Pennsylvania "Big Tree."

But since I'm a TNHG, it's the tree's past that fascinates me more than its size.  According to the local historical society, the beech was planted around 1711, by a young Scottish-born farmer named Alexander Bane (1688-1747.) Not much is known of Alexander. He was a Friend, and he and his brother Mordecai both settled in what is now Chester County. In 1711, he purchased 300 acres of land that had been part of William Penn's original grant. Soon after, he planted this beech, perhaps as a reminder of the homeland he'd left behind, or perhaps to add a small touch of gentility to his new farm before he married a city-born bride from Philadelphia in 1713. Perhaps, too, the newly planted beech was included in his required "forest land"; aware of the majesty of colonial America (and aware, too, of how rapidly the once-great forests of England were disappearing), Penn stipulated that a portion of every settler's tract must remain uncleared and forested.

That's idle speculation, of course, and Friend Bane's reason for planting the beech is as lost as his farm. The farm was long ago broken up and "developed", the stone farmhouse torn down and the rolling fields around it replaced by suburban houses and an elementary school, with the four noisy lanes of Route 202 destroying any lingering hints of Quakerly peace.

Yet the tree remains. Now three hundred years old, it's an ancient but vital survivor, isolated and surrounded by a chain-link fence to protect it from nefarious teenagers and the tow-trucks headed for the auto repair shop across the street. Yet standing beneath its twisting branches, I think of how an elderly William Penn might have visited the Bane family's farm. He might well have sat on a nearby bench with Alexander, drinking cider poured by Jane Bane on a warm summer evening: the same William Penn who had refused to remove his hat before Charles II at Whitehall Palace, the same William Penn who received the generous grant of land in 1682 from James, Duke of York (who becomes the king of The Countess and the King), that became Pennsylvania. In other words, this tree is a contemporary of the characters of my most recent books – and suddenly 17th c. England doesn't seem that long ago at all.


Michael Robinson said...

In Virginia we have the Hampton 'Emancipation Oak,' the site of the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.

"Here, under an oak tree, newly freed African American students listened in January 1863 as the Emancipation Proclamation was read aloud. Union Gen. Benjamin F. Butler’s “contraband of war” decision at Fort Monroe in 1861 anticipated that day, enabling hundreds of enslaved African Americans to reach freedom in the Union lines. The rising number of “contrabands” camped here prompted the establishment of schools — antebellum slave codes had forbidden the education of slaves — and the freedmen exhibited “a great thirst for knowledge.”

Hampton is a fascinating place to visit, inter alia it claims to be the oldest continuously occupied English settlement in the US.

Anonymous said...

Given your affinity for Charles II, Susan, you can't forget the Royal Oak that sheltered Charles at Boscobel:

nightsmusic said...

I love old, old trees. Imagine what they've seen over their lifetime. I have an old tree in my yard, (well, old by MY standards, just a bit over 100) and though my DH wants to cut it down, I won't let him. This is the land I grew up on and through all of it's changes, that tree has been the one constant. I can't imagine my yard without it.

Richard Foster said...

Quaker William Penn has always been connected to trees and his plan for "green countrie towns." He believed his colony would be a kind of Quaker Eden, hence the emphasis on trees. This is the reason that he is always shown beneath a large tree in the peaceable kingdom paintings by Hicks.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Michael, thank you for the link. I always think of major American events taking place under large trees - often a landmark and the primary gathering place in a time before civic centers.

Anonymous, I'd never forget the Royal Oak! But that's such a dramatic story, I'm saving it for another time - like Oak Apple Day? *g*

Theo, don't let your husband cut down that tree! Old trees like that really do have a kind of magic to them...

Richard, yes, you're right about Penn's "green countrie towns" and his respect for trees. The Hicks paintings that feature him making treaties with Native Americans do always feature him beneath spreading trees - symbolic for all sorts of reasons.

nightsmusic said...

Oh, I have no intention of letting him. Though it's "only" a Poplar, and the small branches it leaves all over the yard in spring and fall look like skeletonized finger joints, and in the fall is green happy one day and then has dropped every single leaf the next, I wouldn't have it any other way.

And it really is magic. It was hit with lightning the year before I was born and the following year, when they thought it might not come back, it grew 15 feet. It's a survivor. Like me :o)

Sharlia McGee said...

Susan - I was searching for Alexander Bane when I found your site. May I please have permission to add it to my family tree in It adds a very personal touch!

Sharlia, San Antonio, TX

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Of course you may link to us, Sharlia - we're honored. Are you a descendant of Alexander Bane?

Anonymous said...

Inspired by your page I taught my 2nd grade class about this historic tree this afternoon. Thinking it would be really great to get a photo from inside the canopy of the tree I went to the site tonight. As I live within 500 yards of the place I drove over and introduced myself to the Security Officer on duty. I was polite in explaining my purpose for asking but unfortunately "Officer Unfriendly" was somewhat rude in her response. Perhaps this summer I'll go in the daytime and get a less hostile reply. Sad :-( Brian Harris 2nd grade teacher Hillsdale Elementary West Chester, Pa

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Brian, I hope you do get inside the fence. I've never seen a security guard, hostile or otherwise, so you've already done better than I ever did.

But what a great history lesson for your students - a really big, really old tree is something I'm sure even 2nd graders can comprehend. Even trapped behind that fence and surrounded by its light-industrial modern neighbors, the tree is still imposing, and a tangible link to the colonial past. I'm so glad this post inspired you to visit!

I don't live in WC, but about 20 minutes away. My kids used to play hockey at IceLine, however, so I spent a lot of time on Fern Hill Road. :)

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