For hundreds of years, an imposing white oak tree has watched over a New Jersey community and church, providing protection from the summer sun, serving as a scenic backdrop for thousands of photos and—according to legend—as a picnic site for George Washington. But the tree—believed to be among the nation's oldest—is not long for its spot in the church graveyard, reports the AP. Crews are due Monday at the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church in Bernards to begin removing the 600-year-old tree. The two to three days of chopping will draw attention from residents of a bedroom community about 30 miles west of New York that has long celebrated its white oak. It's been the place to go for formal photos, a landmark for driving directions, and a remarkable piece of natural history. "I know it seems funny ... to mourn a tree, but I'm really going to miss seeing it," says a resident.
Arborists say the tree had stood for nearly 300 years before the church was built in 1717. It stands about 100 feet tall, has a trunk circumference of 18 feet and a branch spread of roughly 150 feet. The tree was declared dead after showing rot and weakness in the last few years, likely due to its age. Arborists determined it wouldn't be able to stand many more harsh winters or spring storms. Among notable visitors was Gen. George Washington, who town officials say picnicked at the tree with the Marquis de Lafayette. "It has been an integral part of the town, that's for sure," says a member of the church's council. "It has always been there, even before there was a town." Experts say fewer trees are replicating the old oak's 600-year lifespan due to several factors—including droughts, wildfires, and invasive insects. But the tree's legacy will go on, notes NJ.com: Another white oak, cultivated from the old tree's acorns, was recently planted on church property. It now stands about 20 feet tall. (Read more trees stories.)