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The Centennial Oak.

Centennial Oak Stands For Freedom and Equality

August 9, 2011

You often hear us say that every tree tells a story.

Well, it's true. When people come across an impressive, mature tree, they often wonder what kind of stories it might tell if it could talk. What historic tales would it share, detailing the monumental events that have happened in its shade? Would this watchful tree, unmoving and trusted by those nearby, be able to disclose even more specifics than the humans recording historical data?

In fact, some trees have stories so remarkable, you can't help but spread the word, telling its tale to others … almost like you're sitting at a campfire at night, sharing old legends with youngsters.

One tree that certainly has many stories to tell is a 46.9-inch diameter centennial oak located across the street from the South Newbury Union Chapel in Newbury, Ohio - the location where the first female voters cast their ballots for a local election. The Women's Suffrage Political Club planted the tree on July 4, 1876 as a symbol of hope in the growth of their cause. 

I recently visited the 135-year-old tree and have to say its massive branches and large stature are impressive.

Recently, The Davey Tree Expert Company donated some time to help preserve the tree to ensure it maintains its significant place in history as a symbol of strength and, above all else, courage.

Here is the tale of the Centennial Oak.


More than 130 years ago, women's suffrage established its roots in a little white chapel in Newbury Township.

South Newbury Union Chapel trustees and champions
of the Centennial Oak: Michael Fath, Beverly Ash
and Sandra Woolf.

Nine women became Ohio's first female voters in 1871 when they stormed the South Newbury Union Chapel and cast their ballots for a local election. This democratic move came 48 years before women were granted the right to vote in 1919.

"South Newbury was a bastion of reform and free speech," says Michael Fath, a chapel trustee. "It's democracy - the reason why this country is the way it is. It started in little Newbury." The chapel was bestowed with an historical marker from The Ohio Historical Society in August 2010.

President James A. Garfield was the inspiration for the construction of the chapel in 1858. Before his presidency when he was a teacher, he was refused access to another nearby church because members felt his speech for the Congregationalists in Newbury was too controversial. As a result, the land across the street was donated by a local resident for building the South Newbury Union Chapel as a place for "lectures on all useful subjects, open and free for all denominations ... to be monopolized by no one or more to the exclusion of any one." Freedom of speech and other constitutional rights became the chapel's backbone ever since.

In addition to the first female voters, several famous speakers also chose the chapel as a venue, including pioneers in the women's suffrage movement Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone and Ellen Munn; authors Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Taylor Upton; and Theodore Parker, advocate of the eight-hour work day.

A white oak was planted to honor the country's 100th birthday on July 4, 1876 by the Women's Suffrage Political Club that regularly met at the chapel. The oak was chosen as the best tree to signify strength and growth as the years went by, and represent what they hoped would be a symbol of the advancement and success of their cause. Because bitter antagonism prevailed against equal rights for women at the time, the women decided to plant the tree on private property across the street from the chapel to better ensure its survival. A jar buried in concrete at the tree's base contained a history of the club and a program and poem about the day it was planted. No longer in need of hiding, an historical marker commemorating the tree was recently placed at the road in front of it.

Once made aware of this historical site and the fact that the tree was in decline with stunted growth, The Davey Tree Expert Company has been instrumental in providing many of the cultural and remedial recommendations as outlined by experts from The Davey Institute.

"The Davey crews worked hard to turn this historic site into a place to be visited and remembered," says Bill Ginn, the current champion of the preservation efforts surrounding this historic tree.

Preserving this monumental tree is important for Davey. It's a part of one of the company's local service areas, one of its communities.

Sandy Woolf, chapel trustee and whose ancestor was a member of the second oldest Women's Political Suffrage Club, explained this feeling best. "As long as this chapel stands nobody owns it," she says. "The people own it." Both the chapel and the tree are recorded as being built and installed by "individuals of Newbury and the vicinity" with no names attached, echoing the overall message of unity and hope both represented.

And for what the tree signifies, keeping it thriving is important to Ohio history and American history. As a sentiment said in Anna Medora Green's poem written on July 4, 1876 for the dedication of this Equal Rights Centennial Oak Tree:

A closer look at the Centennial Oak's branching structure.

"This emblem of our righteous cause

We plant as a protest to unjust laws.

May it stand as a witness til woman is free

A monument grant, this Centennial Tree.

And may this oak rooted deep in the ground

Shooting up, branching out ever living be found

An emblem, a witness a monument be

Long life to our dear Centennial tree."


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