The Amity Woodbridge Historical Society, at its annual meeting on November 4, unveiled a notable donation it had received, namely the richly carved chair that once served as the President’s Chair at the now defunct Quinnipiack Club in New Haven. The chair found its way back to Woodbridge, because its wood is believed to have come from the famous Woodbridge Oak, a majestic tree that was cut down in the late 19th century after lengthy controversy that drew attention well beyond the state lines.
“An event like this [the return of the chair] doesn’t happen very often,” said Don Menzies, a member of the Historical Society’s Board of Directors, when he and Barbara Hagan Smith unveiled the chair following the annual meeting in the Woodbridge Town Library’s Woodbridge Room.
The chair is intricately carved, with two regal Indian heads for finials, and displaying symbols of the Connecticut seal – three grapevines and an inscription of “Qui Transtulit Sustinet,” (He who transplanted (us) sustains (us)). Menzies thanked town resident Paul DeCoster as “one who paid attention” and facilitated the connection with former Club president, Charles Nobel III, who chose to donate it to the Amity Woodbridge Historical Society.
The Woodbridge Oak, standing proud at the intersection of Center and North Pease roads during the second half of the 19th century, was famous in its day – second only to the Charter Oak, according to Menzies – for its size and presumed age. There were many urban legends attached to the Old Oak, both in local lore and in the national press of the time.
It was said to be 3,000 years old (Menzies, “probably not”); Washington and Lafayette were thought to have dined under its branches when they marched through (they never did); the Regicides Goffe and Whalley were said to have climbed its branches to look out for those seeking revenge (“probably not”), and it was said to be the witness to many young love stories (most likely, yes).
Even the New York Times took note in 1889 of the tree’s demise, writing that the tree “is being now made up into chairs for the Quinnipiack Club and for individuals who have been fortunate enough to place their order.” The company entrusted with the order was Palmer &Embury of New York City.
Prior to the tree being cut, the Quinnipiack Club had developed a special stewardship of the tree, which was most likely due to its erstwhile president, Nehemia Sperry, and his connections to the Woodbridge Sperrys. In 1882, the Club formed an offshoot, the Quinnipiack Oak Tree Association, and an auxiliary. It was this auxiliary that arranged for a grand celebration under the tree in October of that year, replete with speeches and flags. The shindig drew attention far and wide, Menzies said. Even James English, a prominent New Haven businessman and former state Governor, was cited as saying that “the women of Woodbridge put together one of the best country suppers anyone could remember.”
The chair will be permanently displayed at the library, Menzies said, probably elevated on a platform, so people don’t inadvertently sit on it.
In addition to the chair, the Historical Society also displayed two canes made from the wood of the Old Oak. These were donated by local families, the Beisiegel and the Razee families. Tim Razee Wilkins, whose grandfather later built a home at the intersection, was in the audience.
Menzies also took the occasion to read from a letter written in 1945 by George Hubbel to Elizabeth Kunz Beecher, whose father had owned the land where the tree once stood – describing his recollections of the “Oak Tree Feud.” Three of Hubbel’s descendants also were in the audience, Georgiana Hubbell Sorensen; her sister-in-law, Carol Hubbell; and Fanny Lou Hubbell Fossberg.
Back in the 1880s Jacob Kunz – Elizabeth’s father – still owned 2/5 of the tree, with the rest being owned by the town. And Kunz and the town’s leaders could not agree on whether to take it down.
Hubbel saw the seeds for the conflict in the ‘ink slinging” members of the press, who at the time of the aforementioned picnic had told Mr. Kunz about plans to erect a fence and a tent on his property. Surprised and concerned, Mr. Kunz began “to assert his independence and ownership,” Hubbel wrote. And when a few years later the town came to him about taking it down, he said “No.”
“The town officers left, (Ho! Humming) and what to do? – Send a diplomat,” Hubbel wrote. That diplomat was Hubbel’s own father. He and Kunz came to an agreement that saved face. “I said I would not cut that tree down, and I won’t, Kunz reportedly said. “But you may cut it, Doctor, and I will help remove it.”
Pictured: Don Menzies points out the history of the Quinnipiack chair, which will be on display at the Town Library. On his right is a Robert Wiseman engraving of the Woodbridge Oak in its full glory.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent