In writing this series of articles during the last few years your columnist has several times referred to the “Sentinel Chestnut”, on Old Eagle School road in Strafford.
Up until the time that the Strafford Pharmacy was built on the northeast corner of this old road and Lancaster Pike, the tree stood on the ground just back of it. It was one of the series of tall, sturdy trees that stood at intervals between the Old Spread Eagle Inn and Washington’s headquarters, along which messages were relayed.
When the picture of this tree was first used in this column last January, the statement was made in the accompanying text that “when the big chestnut… was taken down to make room for the drug store, it was rescued from burning by a Mr. Barr of Phoenixville, who still has much of it stored in his barn.” Mr. Barr proves to be none other than Morris Abner Barr, about whom we have been writing these past few weeks, and there has come additional information in regard to this famous old tree.
It seems that among the thousands of visitors who stopped to examine the displays in Mr. Barr’s Museum, near Valley Forge, there was a young Englishman, who remarked casually that Mr. Barr should add a piece of the Washington sentry chestnut to his collection. This man referred Mr. Barr to the wife of the sheriff of Chester County, who, it seems, knew the history of the tree. She, in turn, sent Mr. Barr to the owner of the property on Old Eagle School road, on which the tree had stood for probably some 300 years or more.
By this time however, it had been felled in order to make room for the stores about to be built along the Pike, and had Mr. Barr arrived on the scene even a day later than he did, his mission would have been in vain. For in order to dispose of the tree quickly, the owner was about to let the fire, which was already burning the underbrush, take its toll of the great trunk and heavy branches which were lying on the ground. A picture made on the day of Mr. Barr’s arrival on the scene shows the haze of smoke hovering over the scene.
The next step was to obtain help in moving this heavy load from the site to the Valley Forge Museum. “After much persuasion and at considerable expense”, Mr. Barr writes, “I got the contractor who was excavating the cellars for the row of new stores, to move the tree before it was burned up. This the contractor did by way of his large truck and it proved a heavy task, indeed.”
Once in his possession, Mr. Barr began to make plans for the distribution of pieces of the old tree. Some of the wood was rotten, as the tree had been killed by the San Jose scale several years before it was cut down. However, the major portion of it was still sound, including even the sentry box near the top.
It is said that the next sentry tree to the north was one on the present property of the Doyle Nurseries. That there may have still been others in this series of trees to the south of the pike is indicated in some interesting correspondence between Mr. Barr and Henry Pleasants Jr., son of the author of the books on the history of Old Eagle School and on Old St. David’s Church.
Under date of June 15, 1940, Dr. Pleasants, who was then vice-president of the Chester County Historical Society, wrote to Mr. Barr: “I am extremely interested in the George Washington tree souvenirs, concerning which you so kindly wrote me. I remember the tree very accurately, as it was still standing when I was about ten years old… When my father wrote his books on the Old Eagle School and on Old St. David’s Church, he used a photograph of this tree as an illustration.
“As you may know, there was another signal chestnut tree on West Wayne avenue, just between our house and the entrance to the road through the Atlee property leading to Edwards Dam. There was also another chestnut tree on the Atlee property just beside the old lime kiln, not far from Edwards Dam. Both of these trees were said to have been part of the same signal system to which the Strafford tree belonged. Unfortunately, both trees perished, due to Chestnut blight.”
(For the information of present day readers the old Pleasants house here referred to as “our home” has been the most recent property of the late Mr. & Mrs. Galloway C. Morris on West Wayne avenue, and the Edwards Dam is the present Mill Dam.)
The Chester County Historical Society was but one of some hundreds of recipients of the generosity of Mr. Barr in the distribution of souvenirs of the old Strafford tree. Of souvenirs selected for the Pennsylvania State Museum and for the Chester County Historical Society by Dr. Pleasants, Mr Barr writes:
“The very limb upon which the sentry had built the platform had been preserved by me. Dr. Pleasants remembered the very place among the remains of the tree in the Fall of 1940, when selecting a piece for the State Museum, and at the same time selected the very fine specimen as the souvenir for the Chester County Historical Museum.”
On the day of the 18th Annual Pennsylvania State Sunday celebration held in January, 1941, in Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, Mr. Barr was chosen to make a personal presentation of a piece of wood from the George Washington tree.
Schools, colleges, historical societies, churches and individuals throughout the entire United States have bits of the tree.
Even as far as the Island St. John, Newfoundland, there is an Episcopalian church in which the rostrum is made from some of the wood of this Revolutionary relic. And as close as our neighboring community in Manoa, Delaware County, the Presbyterian Church has a flag pole made from the wood of the tree.
During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s term of office as president of the United States a piece of the tree was placed in the National Museum. The late president Calvin Coolidge had a small piece of the tree in his office at the White House. “A part of the tree”, Mr. Barr writes, “was placed in the North Attleboro (Mass.) Historical Society because George Washington came down Washington street in North Attleboro to take charge of his troops.”
And this is to name but a very few of the repositories of the bits of the last of the Washington sentry trees.