The Endicott Pear : America’s Oldest Cultivated Tree
This past week I attended several lectures hosted by the 5th Endicott Cousin’s Reunion held, appropriately, at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts. I had read a notice in my local paper and what caught my attention was a talk by Danvers historian and archivist Richard Trask regarding the Endicott Pear Tree.
The tree remains as an extraordinary living testimonial to the earliest horticultural activity in the American colonies. It was planted by John Endecott , Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company’s settlement at Salem in approximately 1633 on his 300 acre country estate, Orchard Farms located three miles upstream of Salem in what is now Danversport. The spelling of Endecott changed to Endicott in the 18th century and both are used depending upon the context.
Governor Endecott (1588-1655) was one of the country’s earliest gentlemen farmers and among other agrarian pursuits developed an interest in pomology, herbology and the use of plants for medicinal purposes. He is credited with owning the first sundial in New England (now stored at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem) and introducing the ox-eye daisy, the ubiquitous roadside flower, to the colonies.
Orchard Farms was a considerable enterprise. In Old Fashioned Gardening, written in 1918 by Grace Tabor, Endicott’s last will and testament of May 1659 is cited. In it his farm including dwelling house, outhouses, barne(e)s, stables, and all other buildings and appurtenances…and all orchards, nurseries of fruit trees, gardens, meadows, fences and salt marsh were bequeathed to his wife. The extent of his nursery is alluded to in Alice Morse Earle’s, Old Time Gardens, written in 1901 which quotes a letter written by Endecott to Governor John Winthrop noting that his children had burnt at least 500 trees by setting the ground on fire near them.
Throughout history trees have been endowed with sacred qualities often derived from associations with historical events. In America the importance of individual trees was widely celebrated and often they achieved iconic status and recognition as noteworthy landscape features. The map below, which shows the tree as a notable feature, was found on the website of the Norman P. Leventhal Map Collection at the Boston Public Library: www.maps.bpl.org.
In a “quaint” letter written to a Miss Tulles and published in the New York Times on May 17, 1879, Henry Wordsworth Longfellow refers to the Endicott Pear within the context of the passing of time. Longfellow writes, ” To those who ask how I can write so many things that sound as if I were as happy as a boy’ please say that there is in this neighborhood , or neighboring town, a pear- tree planted by Governor Endicott 200 years ago not to be distinguished from the young tree in favor. I suppose the tree makes new wood every year, so some part of it is always young. Perhaps that is the way with some men as they grow old; I hope it is so with me.”
In 1919 the Arnold Arboretum published James Raymond Simmons book, The Historic Trees of Massachusetts, which includes “biographies” of twenty-five noteworthy trees accompanied by photographs taken on Simmons’ 3A Brownie camera. Simmons notes, “an historic tree commands in us the same quality of admiration which we feel for a great mind,” and describes the Endicott Pear Tree as, “one of the most quaint and strangely impressive of all the historic trees.”
Throughout its lifetime the Endicott Pear has withstood the vagaries of both nature and man. The tree has survived hurricanes, earthquakes, grazing by cows, suburban sprawl and in 1964 an act of vandalism deemed so outrageous it was reported in a New York Times article titled, “335-Year Old Tree Felled, Apparently by Vandals.” However, despite the dire prognosis the Endicott Pear rejuvenated and continues to thrive and bear fruit, usable in tarts but challenging to eat off the tree, according to those who have tasted the pears.
In July, 1997 cuttings from The Endicott Pear Tree were collected and propagated allowing scion wood cuttings to be developed and made available through the Endicott Family Pear Tree Project. During the first phase of the project scion clones from the original Endicott Pear Trees were planted in 17 states. To learn more about the project and express interest in acquiring an Endicott Pear Tree visit: www.endecott-endicott.com.
While it is remarkable that the tree has survived a visit to America’s oldest cultivated tree reminds one just how extraordinary the juxtaposition can be between the past and present.
The tree is located at the rear of an industrial park on Endicott Street, just off Route 128, the highway built to circumnavigate Boston in the 1950’s. There, at the edge of the lower parking lot between Osram Sylvania and Mass General/North Shore Center for Outpatient Care, down a sloping ravine, enclosed by locked wrought iron fence is the Endicott Pear Tree. Directly behind the tree scrubby fields lead to the salt marshes and river, visual reminders, like the pear, of the past.
Unfortunately, a view in the other direction is very much of the present and it is difficult to imagine that below the extensive parking lots lay the remains of Governor Endecott’s beloved Orchard Farms.
Copyright © 2012 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved