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Plant Focus

Quercus peninsularis
A Red Oak (Section Lobatae) endemic to inland ranges of northern Baja California, Mexico

The Sacred Oak of Oley

Oley Valley lies in the heart of the Old Order Mennonite settlements in Eastern Pennsylvania, sitting ten miles northeast of Reading and forty-five miles north of Philadelphia in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Dutch was the prominent language until the end of World War II. European settlers, who arrived in the early 1700s, were primarily French Huguenots, German farmers, and Swedes pushed north from their Wilmington, Delaware settlements. The name Oley is derived from the germanization of the Lenape Indian word olink, meaning hole or kettle, which is descriptive of the valley’s shape. The Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians had villages in the valley when the European settlers arrived. The geology of the valley presents limestone deposits underlying most of the area. There were approximately 25 old lime kiln sites, two old limestone quarries, three old iron ore mines, and iron furnaces dotting the area, some dating from prerevolutionary days, when iron ore was mined and smelted in the area. The lime kilns as well as the iron furnaces consumed vast quantities of charcoal, which makes the longevity of the subject of this article even more remarkable, since most of the virgin forest in the area fell victim to the axes feeding these local industries.

The Sacred Oak in Oley Valley

Two of the more renowned families to have settled the valley were Daniel Boone's parents, whose homestead still sits in the southern end of the valley, and Mordecai Lincoln, the great-grandfather of Abraham Lincoln, whose home, built circa 1730, still stands not far from the Boone family residence.

In the center of this fertile valley stands a majestic old chinkapin oak (Quercus muehlenburgii) known to many residents of the valley and to the Lenni Lenape tribal members as the Sacred Oak. This tree stands on a small farm just off Friedensburg Road. It is at the edge of a field in a recessed area created by the Monocacy Creek as it loops in a 100-ft semicircle around the tree's southern side. It is the proximity to this creek that is perhaps the prime reason for the tree’s longevity.

The Legend

The veneration of the tree goes back to a presumed Lenni Lenape legend. A Lenni Lenape chieftain’s beloved wife was very ill and since none of the tribal shaman’s remedies showed any signs of restoring her to health, the chief went to the old oak and prayed to the Great Spirit to save her. On his return to the village he found his wife cured. Later this same chief, when war with a western tribe was imminent, went again to the old oak and prayed for guidance. He received instructions to take gifts to the other tribe and offer peace. A pact was made and the tree became revered and sacred to the Lenni Lenape people. The local Lenni Lenape tribal elders claim the tree's reverence goes back several hundred years.

The plaque placed by high school students in 1967

But it is not only the Lenni Lenape people that have cherished this old tree. Over the years, many have visited the oak, some to make marriage proposals, others to seek cures or guidance, leaving personal pictures, small notes, or other items as a tribute. Many placed the notes, coins, or personal items in bark crevices on the tree itself. Some too came to perform pagan sacrificial rituals, while others including local school children have come just to admire and wonder at its size and relax or picnic in its shade. A local group of high school students had a commemorative plaque placed near the old oak in 1967 listing its size and proclaiming it to be the largest in the United States.

The Sacred Oak: 87 ft tall with a 22-ft girth

The Farm

The farm where the oak stands was started around 1725 by Swiss immigrant Samuel Hoch and had remained in the Hoch family until Daniel K. Hoch sold it in 1951. It became known as the Sacred Oak Farm during the ownership of Daniel K. Hoch’s grandfather Jacob Hoch (1798 - 1878), who started a brick-making business from clay found on the farm. Daniel K. Hoch (1866 - 1960) was well known in the area having served twice in the US House of Representatives and also serving as Berks County Controller. There is a stone monument commemorating him near the Sacred Oak, placed there in 1961 by a local group. There is also an old brick gateway, probably constructed from bricks made on the farm, which stands where an old road once ran across the northern side of the oak.

Stone monument commemorating Daniel K. Hoch

The Tree

The Scared Oak today stands 87 ft tall, with a girth of 22 ft and a canopy spread of 111 ft, and is estimated to be 500 to 700 years old (no core samples have been taken to certify its age). It has suffered much in recent years from heavy undergrowth that competes for valuable nutrients, and from a lightning strike in 2001 that damaged a large lower limb and caused a split in the main trunk. The current owner Christopher Hartman along with the local township leaders have taken steps to bring the venerated old oak back to good health and to protect it. 

Split in main trunk caused by lightning strike

A tree care company was contacted and they have inspected the tree and made several recommendations including installation of lightning protection and a cable system, and clearing the undergrowth. A further precaution taken by Chris and the township leaders was to supervise public access to the Sacred Oak and to limit it to twice annually, once in the spring and again in mid-fall. They have also asked the public not to leave personal items on or around the tree. The effects of these steps seem to have helped as the trees foliage is much fuller than a few years ago and the acorn production has also improved.

The Township has established a charity fund to help maintain and preserve the Sacred Oak. Donations can be sent payable to Oley Township with Sacred Oak Project written on the memo line of the check. Send the donation to Oley Township Municipal Building, 1 Rose Virginia Road, Oley PA 19547. Anyone seeking further information regarding the Sacred Oak may contact the Oley Valley Heritage Association at P O Box 401, Oley PA 19547-0401.

All photographs © Plummer Dunkle