Standing here since 1699
Circumference 25 feet, 5 inches
Diameter 90 inches
I - The Balmville TreeThe Balmville Tree is the oldest Eastern Cottonwood on record in the United States. A core sample taken by a Harvard University scientist in 1953 indicated it started growing in 1699. When it began life, Bach was a 14-year-old enraptured by the music of Vivaldi, who was a young man of 24, and Shakespeare had been dead for only 83 years.
The Tree is less older than the American public. A 19th century fable held that the tree sprang from the riding crop of George Washington, who made his headquarters Newburgh in 1783 — 84. But the tree began life 33 years before Washington and 9 years before the birth of his mother Mary Ball Washington.
Situated in a glen at the intersection of what were three old Indian trails and nurtured by a plentiful water supply from the hill that rises to the west of it, the tree grew quickly and well, achieving in its prime a height of more than 85 feet and a massive circumference of possibly 25 feet. The core sample indicated that by the time Washington rode by the tree, it was already huge. Eastern Cottonwoods (poputus deltoides) are indigenous to North America and grow rapidly for 75 years or so. Most of them died before they reached the century mark. The Balmville Tree was nearing the end of its normal life expense expectancy in Washington's time.
The Tree defied all odds by continuing to grow into the 19th century. The people who lived around Newburgh in those days mistakenly thought it was a Balm of Gilead, the exotic hybrid popular related to the cottonwood. Hence it was call the "Balm Tree" and the settlement that grew up around it, Balmville. The hamlet of Balmville began to appear on the maps in the late 18th century. During the Revolution, there was a tavern near the Tree whose patrons regularly gathered under the shade to the sip their brews, denounced King George III and his taxes and talk about the course of the war.
II — The Tree's Environs and LoreThe shuttered house 83 Balmville Rd., southwest of the tree and tucked into the hillside on the west side of Balmvillle Road was built in the early 18th century (the small carriage house just north of it was built much later). During the Revolution, the house was used by William Bloomer, a blacksmith. Badly in needed of repair, it was rehabilitated in 1916 by John Staples, an inventor. Mr. and Mrs. Augustus W. Bennett, who lived in the house in early 1930s called it Balmtree. Gus Bennet served as a Congressman from the area in the 1940s. It is believed that Bloomer's forage was just cross the street, immediately south of the Tree in the front yard of what is now 39 Commonwealth Ave. Bloomer may have been one of the many Hudson Valley blacksmiths who worked on the chain that the rebellious colonialists stretched across the Hudson at Fort Montgomery in 1777, in an effort to stop the British frigates from sailing northward. The British got through and burned both Fort Montgomery and the state capitol of Kingston in that year.
As Balmville grew in the 19th century welcoming such nationally famous figures as landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, there was much lore about the tree. One story was that when Matthew Vassar was down and out, he slept under the Tree and got such a good rest that he was able to continue his trip to Poughkeepsie, establish a brewery and acquired enough wealth to establish college of note in 1865. By the late 19th century the Tree was loved by the City of Newburgh residents. They began a Sunday afternoon tradition of taking a walk out to the tree. The Balmville Promenade continued well into the 20th century.
III — The Tree's AdmirersFranklin Delano Roosevelt was the second President to be counted among the many admirers of the Balmville Tree. He is known to have stopped to view it many times when he came to Balmville from Hyde Park to visit his uncle, Col. Frederick Delano, who lived nearby in an estate that is now Susan Drive. But in the 20th Century, some local officials advocated the destruction of the Tree. They called it an eyesore and an impediment to the swift flow of traffic. The Tree had friends, however, among them Carl Delano in the 1920s and the Goudy Wildlife Club through the 1970s. Club members raised money to pay for cabling the tree needed.
At the behest of the Tree's admirers, the State Environmental Commissioner Ogden R. Read decided in 1976 to make the tree the first individually protected tree in New York State history. The state then created a permanent easement around the Tree so that no excavating can be done within 150 feet of it without state permission.
In 1995, a patch of roadway just south of the Tree was sealed off and a fieldstone wall was constructed to protect the Tree and what had become the state's smallest forest. Since all trees lose limbs from time to time, a custom-built steel pole was erected immediately west of the Tree. The steel guide wires mitigate the weight of the limbs and give them their own drop zone. The money for this was raised privately by the friends of the Tree locally and from around the United States. The friends are too numerous to be listed here. The State Department Environment Conservation agreed to provide feeding, maintenance and general care of the site in perpetuity.
Why was the Balmville Tree able to live more than three times normal life expectancy? Nobody is certain, though some of the most respected botanists in the United States have studied its leaves, bark, genetic structure and general health. It is not only the oldest cottonwood in record — it is the most mysterious. If and when it dies, it hopefully will be replaced by one of its offspring, grown from cuttings of the original. And so there will always be a Balmville Tree.
Placed here by the Friends of the Balmville Tree upon the occasion of his 300th Anniversary