(Please note that although I have taken numerous pictures of the Oak Tree, I have also acquired others and cannot be absolutely certain whether I actually took this picture, or who the original photographer is.)
About 400 years ago, a tiny acorn dropped from a nearby oak tree, or perhaps the mouth of a squirrel. More likely, it was buried by a squirrel, which for reasons unknown, never returned to collect its bounty. Unfortunately for the squirrel, but fortunately for us, in time a new tree sprouted from the rich top soil of the land around what would come to be known as Oak Hill Street in Peekskill, New York.
Some 150 years later on January 7, 1777 (although this date is contested in the plaque described below), during the Revolutionary war, a spy for the British was captured and summarily hanged on the rapidly developing statuesque oak tree. In fact, when the Peekskill Military Academy was built on the site, in the shade of the great tree (1833), Daniel Strang’s bones were found buried nearby. They were removed and reburied farther away. Legend has it that the branch from which Strang was hanged was cut off and and used to make walking sticks.
The tree subsequently became known as the “Hanging Tree,” the “Academy Oak,” and/or the “Charter Oak.” In 1912, a plaque with the following inscription was placed on the trunk of the great oak tree:
“This tablet has been placed here by the Cornelia Beekman Chapter,
Junior Sons and Daughters of the Revolution, June 6, 1912
in honor of this tree upon which was hanged Jan 27, 1776
an American who was employed as a spy by the British”
Almost 12 feet in diameter, the Old Oak served as the centerpiece of the PMA campus, even finding a place on the uniform patch of the cadets, as well as part of the school’s motto: “Stand firm as an Oak; Quit you like men.”
In 1968 when the Academy closed, the land was purchased by the City of Peekskill and a new public Peekskill High School was erected on the site. Despite efforts to protect the tree, the root system was badly damaged, causing the tree to lose many branches and ultimately requiring a system of cables to maintain its previous magesty.
On June 1, 2006, the Old Oak was struck by a massive lightening bolt as pictured above. It was determined by experts to be hazardous, and the tree was subsequently removed. The PMA Alumni Association had intended to use the wood from the tree to make artifacts and momentos commemorating it.
Strangely enough, when the tree was cut, concrete was discovered in the core of the trunk. Evidently, this lightening strike had not been the first, and sometime earlier, date unknown, this had been a remedy for an earlier severe strike.
The Old Oak, as we alumni of PMA fondly remember it, still lives in our hearts, and many of us can remember, sitting under the tree on warm spring days … sheltered in its widespread shade.