From KONNER METZ, Delaware State News
STANTON, Delaware (AP) — At the historic Hale-Byrnes House, a lasting relic of the revolutionary era stands tall and powerful, but perhaps on its last breath.
The more than 300-year-old plane tree hosted a war council on September 6, 1777, led by General George Washington. At this point the tree was fully grown.
Though leaves still adorn the treetop, its hollow trunk and crooked stature may signal its approaching end.
Members of the board of directors of the Delaware Society for Preservation of Antiquities manage the Hale-Byrnes House and have worked to appropriately commemorate the tree that stands directly in front of the house on Route 7.
Board member K. Lynn King has assisted with some of the group’s planning since last year. They enlisted Pamela and Bryant White, two veteran Revolutionary War artists, to paint a portrait of the tree. The board is asking for a donation of $5,000 from the community to ensure the painting can be completed.
Ms King said the portrait will commemorate the historic gathering which took place three days after the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge and five days before the Battle of Brandywine.
Delaware historian and author Kim Rogers Burdick, who has lived in the home with her husband since 2008, said about eight to 10 men, including Washington, occupied the home for a day. They were from Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
“They found out the British were coming, so Washington marched them here,” Ms Burdick said.
Famous figures such as Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox and Robert Kirkwood probably accompanied Washington. However, perhaps the best-known man alongside the future president was an officer named Marquis de Lafayette.
It was under the tree and in the house that Lafayette celebrated his 20th birthday, amid planning for the upcoming campaign defense of Philadelphia.
Ms King said an optimistic timeline for completing the tree painting is early September, allowing it to be released around Lafayette’s birthday. Regardless, she has full confidence in the artists who undertake this task.
While Bryant has agreed to take the lead on this painting, Ms King said the pair are “equally good” and the best in the business. The whites are also revolutionary re-enactors, giving them a historical knowledge and background that some artists may not have.
“The way they interpret the events of the 18th century is just amazing,” said Ms. King. “I wouldn’t have anyone but them do it.”
The tree was added to by the house in 1750 on property originally owned by a potter named Samuel Hale. David Finney soon bought the property and possibly built the house, although Hale may also have had a hand. In 1754 Daniel Byrnes, a Quaker miller, purchased the property and added a kitchen giving it a modern flair.
“It was a rich man’s house,” Ms. Burdick said of how the building looked after Byrnes made his many additions and improvements.
The expansive kitchen and modern design were part of what made Washington decide to hold a meeting at the two-story home, according to Ms. Burdick.
While the towering plane tree stands the test of time, both the tree and the house have survived periods of abandonment.
By the 1960s, Ms. Burdick said, the Delaware Department of Transportation wanted to demolish the home with no conservation laws in place to stop them.
It had been abandoned and local teenagers often came by to restore the house, leaving the rooms damaged and unclean.
But a woman named Marguerite “Carita” Boden wouldn’t let the historic home be erased. She and other locals are campaigning for historical preservation across the state, Ms Burdick said.
“The story is that they went into Legislative Hall,” Ms. Burdick said, “and DelDOT labeled the place an ‘attractive nuisance.'”
“And Carita said, ‘Well, so do I.'”
A few decades earlier, the Boyce family owned the home, but the last remaining member Ms. Boden could find was in a nursing home. Ms. Burdick said that Ms. Boden immediately wrote a check to buy the house.
Soon after, it was turned over to the Delaware chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution before being turned over to the state Department of Historical and Cultural Affairs in the 1970s. Since then, the home has been in safe hands and is used as a venue for reenactments, speakers, and events commemorating its historical importance.
With preservation laws in place and government recognition as a historic site, the prospects for Hale-Byrnes House are much brighter than they were 60 years ago. But the focus now is on preserving the tree that stands taller than the house itself.
Despite the tree’s hollow interior and old age, state arborists have conducted annual assessments of the tree with no urgent concerns so far, according to Ms Burdick.
However, over 300 years is taking its toll and Ms Burdick and Ms King are both skeptical of how long the tree can last. That’s why they sought out the whites – to bring the tree and the revolutionary officers who surrounded it to life in portraiture.
“They’re just too great,” Ms. King said of the artists. “You can almost empathize with her pictures.”
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