This Old Tree with Doug Still
The Betsey Williams Sycamore (Transcript)
Season 1, Episode 1
Published September 15, 2022
Doug Still: 0:00
The Betsy Williams Sycamore is the most famous tree in Rhode Island. Its huge girth and spreading branches have been photographed, climbed on, and loved by generations of visitors to Roger Williams Park and Providence dating back to the late 19th century. It can be seen as a stately tree in old postcards from 1905 and 1910. But what do we really know about our old friend? Why is the tree here? How old is it? And why is it so special? Who is Betsy Williams? Join me as my search for an origin story touches on the legacy of Roger Williams, Rhode Island's founder, introduces overlooked historical characters, including members of Betty's family, reveals a forgotten tree and follows a divorce trial featuring an interloper who could have changed everything. This is also a story about 19th century women surviving on their own using their savvy to preserve their land when women had few rights and were expected to marry and bear children. The patient, gracious Betsy Williams Sycamore bore witness to it all. I'm your host, Doug Still, and welcome to This Old Tree, the podcast about heritage trees and the human stories behind them.
This Old Tree theme song: 1:19
This old tree, standing here for more than four centuries. I wonder what you'd say to me.....
Doug Still: 1:29
It was March 2005 when I encountered the Betsey Williams Sycamore for the first time. I was an up and coming urban forester, and had just driven up from New York City to Providence to interview for the City Forester position. These jobs are few and far between, as career municipal arborists rarely leave their posts, and I had my eye on Providence for a long time. It seemed like the perfect-sized city with lots of character and charm, and I was from New England. I knew there would be about 12 people around the table interviewing me, including the Superintendent of Parks, her deputy, the city council president, the president of the Rhode Island tree Council, and Peggy Sharp, the longtime philanthropist who created the very successful Providence Neighborhood Planting Program. I really wanted the job, and I was nervous.
But I was early, so when I arrived at the Casino, one of the historic buildings near the entrance of Roger Williams Park, I parked my rental car and took a little walk. I took a path around the bend and wow, there was a giant American Sycamore, possibly 80 feet tall with a 100 foot plus spread. The branches were as thick as trees themselves. One branch was particularly eye-catching. It hung very low with irregular bends and crooks and lots of character. One elbow, so to speak, was a foot off the ground. It was tied in with an old steel cable that was now embedded in the bark as the tree grew around it. If you are familiar with the American Sycamore, you know that the bark has multiple shades of gray, light green and brown as the tree sheds its thin outer layers, sort of resembling the pattern on camouflage pants. But as you look up, the bark turns to a dazzling white in the upper trunk and branches, defining its structure in a way that is visible from far away like a beacon. This was a stunner.
What made the tree even more fantastic was how it was situated in the landscape between two other landmarks. It stood directly in front of a small red gambrel-roofed house with old windows that I later learned was the Betsy Williams cottage. I could clearly see it was an historic building, although it was unmarked at the time. The enormous tree grounded the building somehow, and vice versa. The two were a pair that suggested a bygone era. On the other side of the tree and completing the visual picture was a 25 foot bronze statue of a man in colonial garb. This was Roger Williams - at least that's what the plaque said, standing on a granite pedestal in the middle of a small roundabout. Viewed together, the trifecta made the perfect picture. In fact, I later learned after collecting postcards of Roger Williams Park from the turn of the century, this picture - house, tree, and statue - had been photographed for more than 100 years, just as I saw it, and just as it can be seen today. This space is the heart and soul of Roger Williams Park, the epicenter that was the centerpiece of Horace Cleveland's design in the 1880s. The Sycamore is an essential part of this important picture, the remarkable living portion.
I had no knowledge of the tree prior to coming to Providence, but now I had something to break the ice with when I went in for my interview. In fact, the sycamore in its tremendous glory demanded attention, and it took me out of my nervousness. It spoke to me of time and history and vitality, and there and then kind of gave me an unexpected pat on the back. I went into the interview and did just fine, and later I found out I got the job. I can't help thinking that the tree had something to do with it. I was City Forester for 17 years, and along with all of Providence is tree canopy, the tree was in my charge. Thank God, I didn't screw it up. The tree is alive and well and people still pull over to snap a picture of themselves or their families with the tree amazed at how small they feel under it.
This past June, I left my post as City Forester for new horizons, including this podcast. But something was eating at me. Despite the honor of caring for the Betsy Williams Sycamore, I realized I hadn't truly gotten to know it. I always meant to dig into the town records and the research, but regular duties always came first. The realization hit me hard during a tree tour I was leading last year, when the group came to marvel at the tree. But I had little to tell except for its dimensions and how it was original to the park. "How old is it" they asked, and "what are its origins? What's its story?" People were begging for it. I kind of felt I had let them down, and in a strange way I'd let the tree down too.
So last spring I started visiting the park archives in the Museum of Natural History. I met my colleague Rene Gamba, the museum director, who showed me the research and documents that she had. I quickly realized that to learn about the origins of the Betsy Williams Sycamore, I would need to learn about the life of Betsy Williams herself.
Renee, welcome to the show.
Renee Gamba: 6:57
Thanks so much excited to be here and share some things from the museum's archives.
Doug Still: 7:01
I'd like to thank the Providence Parks Department and the City of Providence for allowing this interview and helping you help me tell this story. Can you tell us how long you've been director of the museum, and maybe describe where we're sitting right now?
Renee Gamba: 7:17
Okay, great. So I've actually been with the museum for almost 23 years, and been director for over 10 years. And then right now we're actually sitting in the archives for Roger Williams Park, and I'm excited to pull some jewels out if you will, to tell our story today.
Doug Still: 7:38
I love it up here. We're on the fourth floor. [Yes] Fourth floor. You have to climb this narrow, winding stairway - that creaks - through the back door in your office in the front so nobody can get up here except for passing through your office. And it's like a little dark and damp.
Renee Gamba: 8:02
Yeah, cuz we're actually in the attic, if you will, of the museum.
Doug Still: 8:07
So as City Forester and you know, us being the division with the bucket trucks [yes], we would come during rainstorms [laughs] and clean out the gutters and get ready to protect everything up here. This past spring, you were kind enough to lead me up here into the archives to find out anything I could about the Betsy Williams Sycamore, because I became obsessed, even more obsessed than I had always been. And you ended up teaching me all about Betsy Williams herself and her family. What's the general narrative around Betsy Williams and the beginning of the park?
Renee Gamba: 8:47
The cottage was where Betsy was actually born. She's the great, great, great granddaughter of Roger Williams.
Doug Still: 8:55
Third great granddaughter.
Renee Gamba: 8:57
Yes. So of Roger Williams, and she lived in that cottage. She was born there, lived there for a period of time. And because of her, we have this beautiful Roger Williams Park. She bequeathed the land to the city of Providence, in 1871 was when kind of everything started and changed for this landscape. And, you know, a lot, you know, has changed the size of it is not, you know, when she first gave him it was kind of a farm really,
Doug Still: 9:29
Originally 100 acres are about [Yes], I think, yeah. So the general narrative is Betsey Williams is third great granddaughter of Roger Williams. She lived alone, she deeded the property to the city of Providence. And that's the house that she lived in. A statue was built and there was this great tree there, or a tree there at the time. [Yep] I think generally people don't know much more than that.
Renee Gamba: 9:58
No, and you know, for periods of time, it's always been shrouded in mystery. People want to go inside, you know, again, I drive by that every day when I come into work, don't think much of it but I see people peering in the windows and you know, wondering more about about that cottage and probably don't even realize that was kind of like the start of the park. That it was because of that and she had that land that she bequeathed to the city that started this beautiful park and you know, being in...
Doug Still: 10:27
It really feels like you're looking into history, when every time we drive by that these three elements, you know, that's the core of Roger Williams Park, I feel like. [Yes] Digging a little deeper into family, the Williams family, could you describe a little bit more about when the house was built and why?
Renee Gamba: 10:50
Is is believed that the cottage was actually built, was actually built by Nathaniel Williams, who was Joseph's grandson, for his son James.
Doug Still: 11:01
Nathaniel would have been the great grandson of Roger Williams.
Renee Gamba: 11:05
Mm hmm, and they believe it was in 1773. So it was actually you know, built by hand.
Doug Still: 11:11
So the Betsy Williams cottage as we now know it was built in 1773. But it wasn't built for Betsey who wasn't even born yet. And it was really built for Betsey by his father James at the behest of his father, Nathaniel Williams, as he directed in his will of 1773. Nathaniel and his wife and I were living nearby in the will portioned out the large farm into parts for his children. James was the third son, and the two older sons Frederick and Nathaniel Jr. first got their share, but were instructed to build a house for James on the property that later became the park. Nathaniel didn't die until 1782 however, so I personally question whether the house was built in 1773, when the will was written. Wouldn't the house have been built after probate in 1782, when James inherited the land? It wouldn't really matter much except with how I date the age of the sycamore tree, but more on that later. Nathaniel Williams was the great grandson of Roger Williams. For those of you not from Rhode Island, Roger Williams is a towering figure in our history as the first European to settle in the area in 1636, then known as Providence Plantations, no longer called that by the way, after he was ousted by the Puritans from Salem for his religious beliefs, and was sent out into the wilderness.
Sidenote, 12 families accompanied Roger Williams to Rhode Island in 1636, one of which was led by the 10th great grandfather of yours truly - me! His name was Stukely Wescott, and I am blue blood in Rhode Island, but you don't really need to know that. I'm also going to take this moment to recognize the land. When settling Providence Plantations on the banks of the Great Salt River, Williams negotiated a deal with the Narragansetts. This is Narragansett land, Williams negotiated a deal with the sachems Canonicus and Miantonomo, and they sold the land directly to him. He eventually relinquished most of the land to the common stock, but this particular piece of land stayed in the ownership of the Williams family.
Renee Gamba: 13:21
Betsy was in fact born there in 1790, to James and Mary.
Doug Still: 13:27
How many children did James and Mary have?
Renee Gamba: 13:32
So they actually had four children? So I only think of Rhoda and Betsy, but they had two others, Charles and Tillinghast.
Doug Still: 13:40
What happened to Betsy's father James, and how long does he live?
Renee Gamba: 13:45
So they believe the father died 1809.
Doug Still: 13:51
So father James died in 1809 at the age of 57, leaving his wife Mary a widow at 52 years old. Betsy was 19 at the time. There was no will. By law 1/3 of the estate automatically went to Mary, the rest to be split by the children. However, brother Charles had married and moved to New York to start a family, and gave up his interest in the estate. Tillinghast had left too, although it is unclear where. Later, he was convinced to relinquish his part ownership. That left Mary and daughters Rhoda and Betsy to run the farm, and each owned a third of the land. I can only imagine how difficult it was to run the farm after the patriarch had passed away, how scary it must have been to lose father James and what strength it took to negotiate the realities of being a woman in the early 19th century, but still keep the farm going. They must have hired farm labor, as women were only expected to perform household duties. On top of that was the burden of the Williams legacy. The land had been passed down from Roger Williams through five generations.
I asked Ruth MaCaulay, a local historian and history teacher at Lincoln school in Providence, to paint a picture of the situation they were in. What other rights did women lack? What was expected of women in general?
Ruth Macaulay: 15:14
Well, they couldn't vote obviously. And so they were forced to submit to laws in which they actually had no voice.
Doug Still: 15:21
This was really a story about women, I feel.
Ruth Macaulay: 15:24
Yeah, oh definitely. And I think it's interesting, because probably one of the few things that women could do at this time was run a farm. I mean, a number of women had run farms in the Revolutionary War, when the husbands were off fighting, and so it was not considered odd for women, especially widows and unmarried women.
Doug Still: 15:45
Right, there must have been... life expectancy wasn't very high, especially for men who might have been killed in war, or a farm accident or [absolutely] anything [yeah]. So it must not have been too unusual then for a widow to run a farm [no]. Were they expected to remarry?
Ruth Macaulay: 16:02
Oh, absolutely, and most of them did. They married quite quickly, because you just needed, you needed the labor [right].
Doug Still: 16:08
By the end of 1814, one of the three women did find a suitor, and that was Rhoda. She was 27. Not old, but at that time most women would have been married by that age. James Straight was younger, just 21 or so he said, a laborer at a woolen mill. He started calling on Rhoda and they got to know each other. Mary and Betsy got to know him too, as he would come by the farm. Rhoda and James were married the following June of 1815. But prior to the wedding, something didn't smell right about James.
Ruth Macaulay: 16:44
There was actually a thought that her fiance was interested in her real estate. So somehow they [yeah] they assumed, knew that...
Doug Still: 16:54
Two days prior to the wedding, Rhoda mortgaged her share of the estate to her mother, and did not tell James. This episode was researched and brought to light in the 1994 article written by Barry Norton called, "Betsy's Jewel," published in a journal called Old Rhode Island. Perhaps this was a test for the young man to see what his true intentions were. Perhaps he was less interested in Rhoda's welfare, and more interested in the land and becoming Lord of the Manor. We'll never quite know for sure whose idea it was. But almost certainly Mary and Betsy were part of the decision making. It was a brilliant move.
Ruth Macaulay: 17:33
The mother and Betsy were very smart. They saw what was possibly coming down the pike, so to speak [right] and got ahold of her land before the wedding, which was a pretty smart move, because it meant that James could not claim it. I mean, he could wait it out, I suppose for the others to die, but I don't think that was what he wanted to do. And I wonder whose idea it was? Yes, I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall [laughing] when they were having that discussion and Rhoda probably wasn't in the room. [Right?] And then they summoned her in and said, "Listen, we got to tell you something."
Doug Still: 18:11
I suspect mother Mary had something to do with it. [You bet] Well, James did not pass the test. After the wedding. When he found out what happened he hit the roof. He became abusive both verbally and physically. The four of them were living together in the little cottage, and his abuse of Rhoda was heard throughout the house. At one point, in a rage, he threw Rhoda down the stairs. He finally left the house to live elsewhere and got involved with another woman. It was a terrible situation. Rhoda wanted a divorce, and by 1817 it had finally gone to trial. Feeling industrious, I tracked down the original handwritten transcripts at the judicial archives in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Here's an excerpt from wrote his opening statement made through her lawyer.
Rhoda's Lawyer statement: 18:59
Let it be respectfully shown with that the said Betsy took the stand and described what happened when she intermarried with said husband about two and a half years ago, hoping and expecting to enjoy all that happiness, which is always anticipated and usually enjoyed in the marriage date. But she is petitioning Your Honor, that all her hopes so fondly cherished have been blunted, and her most sanguine expectations disappointed. emotional detail.
Betsey Williams testimony: 19:30
My sister, Rhoda Straight, has been treated very unkind by her husband in my presence. Not long after they were married, he began to show his temper and quarrel with her and he never has visited the house since except he gave her such language. One time his temper ran very high, and he pushed her against the side of the house and over the chair, which hurt her very much. She was not able to do any kind of work for three or four weeks. Then he kicked her several times. One time, we were at work in the chamber weaving, I, and her husband, and my sister. He got mad about his work and ordered her downstairs. As she walked toward the stairs, he took a brush handle and pushed her off. As she went, she caught on her hands and feet, gave her a very great shock, but did not break any bones. He disturbed the house day and night. I and my mother and sister lost a great many night's sleep by his quarreling. One night he got up in the forefront of the night and was gone for more than an hour I should think. He was always treated very kind and very handsome in our house in every respect. He never received a cross word from his wife or any of our family to my knowledge. One day, he sat making a mortar, got his temper very high, and threw the mortar at her. The mortar glanced from her clothes and fell upon her foot. It was very unkind to her. In sickness, talked very unhandsome to her, told her she was not sick, to get up and wash and mend his clothes. I think she did her duty to him in every respect, and all kinds of work for him in making cloth stockings, washing and mending.
Ruth Macaulay: 21:12
If they could divorce and they really, that was very rare. They had to give up the rights of the children.
Doug Still: 21:19
It was difficult to obtain a divorce at that time.
Ruth Macaulay: 21:22
Extremely difficult. There was... until the middle of the 19th century, the only grounds for divorce were adultery and cruelty. Now another thing that would have really helped at this time - most of the people who got divorces were people of some consequence, and because this was the Williams family, [right] interest in Roger Williams was surging at this time. That probably made it a very high profile case.
Doug Still: 21:48
Even Mary took the stand, and unfortunately was cross examined with probing questions about the secretive mortgage. But Mary didn't bite. She stuck to the facts about the adultery and the cruelty shown by James. I can't help but play one more excerpt from the trial.
James Straight's lawyer: 22:05
How long has the father of the petitioner been dead?
Mary Williams: 22:09
I think it is seven years last November.
James Straight's lawyer: 22:11
What portion of your husband's estate fell to your daughter Rhoda Straight?
Mary Williams: 22:16
Myself and four children inherited the estate. He died without a will, and I administered on the estate.
James Straight's lawyer: 22:24
Have you had the control of Rhoda's estate, which descended from her father, since her father's decease, both real and personal?
Mary Williams: 22:33
I administered on the estate and the administration is not yet settled.
James Straight's lawyer: 22:37
Did you receive from the said Rhoda a mortgage of her real estate some short time before the marriage without making the same known to said James? [Yes] What was the cause of keeping the mortgages secret from said James?
Doug Still: 22:52
Mary doesn't answer.
James Straight's lawyer: 22:54
Did the said Rhoda express a wish to her that said James should not be informed of the mortgage before her marriage?
Doug Still: 23:03
Mary doesn't answer this either.
James Straight's lawyer: 23:05
Did said Rhoda make a conveyance to you of her interest in the personal state that came from her father within one year next before her marriage? [Yes.] How long before the marriage was it?
Mary Williams: 23:16
I think it was short of a month.
Doug Still: 23:19
Everything was at stake. Most importantly, ugh, the three women needed to remove this nasty interloper from their lives. They needed to protect the Williams' land from mismanagement or worse. And they wouldn't have known it exactly, but from our perspective here in the 21st century, the entire future of Roger Williams Park was on the line, the park that has meant so much to generations of people. And if the property had been developed by Straight in some other way, the Betsy Williams Sycamore would have been toast. It took three years, but in 1820 the judge finally ruled that the divorce was allowed to happen. The estate was saved. [Music] Six years later, Mary Williams passed away leaving Rhoda and Betsy alone. Rhoda did not marry again and Betsy never married. From all accounts the two lived peacefully, if a bit eccentricly. Accounts were gathered late in the century from old-timers who knew them, and they were published in books about the park that painted a picture of virtuousness and domestic bliss. The two were slipping into myth. Here's an excerpt from a chapter of the 1897 book, The People's Pleasure Ground: Roger Williams Park Illustrated.
The People's Pleasure Ground: 24:35
In all her household and other affairs, Betsey Williams was very exclusive, careful in all she said, and did and never calling on her neighbors, who at that time nearly all lived at some distance, without an invitation. In business matters, she was most astute, attending to everything herself, and depending solely upon her own judgment and ability, which seldom if ever failed her. Beside the park property she left at her death an estate of considerable value. The greater portion of this was accumulated by the efforts of herself and her sister from raising flax and spinning it into linen, out of which they manufactured many saleable articles such as sheets, pillowcases, shirts, and the like. In fact, both Betsey and Rhoda Williams were industrious, frugal women who made tell to some purpose whatever they undertook to do, and prudently, the fruits of their labors. When out walking, Betsey and Rhoda always dressed alike, and invariably walked single file, Betsey in the lead, and Rhoda as close behind her as ease of locomotion would permit. And a quaint sight it was to see them going into town to market their berries, each with a pail in either hand, and clad in long plaid Cape cloaks with close Quaker-like bonnets and long veils. Betsey Williams and her sister always lived together with no one else in the family, and Betsey was the ruling spirit of the household. With Rhoda, her word was law.
Doug Still: 26:22
Betsey really comes off as the leader in the household in that passage. Here's another account from a park publication written in 1936.
"They say Betsy was tall, straight and thin with beautiful auburn hair and sharp black eyes. While Rhoda was short and plump with curly brown hair that never could be kept in place. Betsey managed the household affairs, for she was quite sure Rhoda could never remember what was necessary to do or leave undone. They both liked brown sugar. but Betsey was sure the light brown was the best, while Rhoda would eat nothing but dark brown. They believed in dividing the housework and Betsey swept half of the rooms, washed her dishes and made up her half of the great four poster bed where they both slept. Sometimes they had rather heated arguments about closing the curtains on the bed at night. But on the whole they lived a very friendly, comfortable life, jogging into town twice a week with eggs and butter for the market, going calling in their stiff, full skirted taffeta gowns and sitting in the shade under the great trees.”
Wait a second - trees? Plural? We're going to come back to that. But I'm not sure Betsey and Rhoda would have wanted their lives described in this way as part of their legacy. But the gods of history have done worse, I suppose. And I get the sense that the two sisters were doing the best they could under the circumstances. Imagine living in close quarters with your sibling for decades on end. In their later years, they ended up moving to a house on nearby Pontiac Avenue and renting the cottage to tenants. Rhoda passed away in 1864, and that left only 74 year old Betsy, alone. Without children or other heirs, she had some decisions to make. She hired a guardian who helped to see to her affairs, Mr. Joseph Cook. He was a developer creating new housing in nearby Elmwood. As the city expanded outward from the downtown towards the Williams farm, the land became much more valuable and attractive. Some said that Mr. Cook couldn't be trusted, another man making claims on our property. But he suggested that she donate the land, which was actually in Cranston, to the city of Providence for it to become a magnificent park, one to rival parks in other cities during this age of the urban parks movement. This time, Betsey was in complete control. Betsey thought this was a good idea, and bequeathed the land to Providence in her will. She died in 1871. So in her will, she decrees that the land can't be used for various reasons,
Renee Gamba: 29:00
mm hmm, has to be named after Roger
Doug Still: 29:02
has to be named after Roger Williams and there has to be a statute. Betsy's will stipulated that the Park must be called Roger Williams Park and a monument should be created to memorialize him. In preserving Roger Williams legacy, Betsy had come through for the family. [Music] The unveiling of the monument in 1877 was a spectacular affair. Among the dignitaries were the mayor, the chief of police, a platoon of police officers, a grand marshal, the Knights Templar, the Order of Free and Accepted Masons, marching bands, and a detachment of cavalry. 20,000 people attended. And there was a procession that led from Market Square downtown all the way out to the new park. There were 1,600 schoolchildren, all of this surrounding our Sycamore which bore witness to it all. Here's part of the introduction to the ceremonies made by Mr. Arthur Dexter, the Chairman of the Committee of the City Council on Parks.
Arthur Dexter: 30:08
This monument erected by the City of Providence to perpetuate the memory of Roger Williams, is completed and has, in customary and solemn form, been pronounced perfect. We are now upon land once owned by Roger Williams, and bequeathed to the City of Providence by Miss Betsey Williams, his great, great, great granddaughter. The love she bore to the city her ancestor founded, and her reverence for his memory, prompted this bequest by which she provided that this tract of land, which contains about 100 acres, might forever be kept for public uses, and be known as Roger Williams Park.
Doug Still: 30:56
But there was one more thing. One description from the official 1877 statue dedication ceremony publication, describe the following. "The monument is erected on the high bank west of the lake facing west, and is visible from the lake and for most parts of the park, while the ancient mansion, our little cottage, and old trees give it a local surrounding peculiarly appropriate."
Wait a second, again - old trees - plural? Rene, and I took a closer look. Here's one thing that I learned when I came and met with you last spring. We looked at a few old photographs. Could we get those out now and take a look at them again? [Yes.] So right now we're looking at the oldest known photograph of the Betsy Williams cottage and Roger Williams Park. There is not one, but two trees in this photo. And then you showed me some of the old postcards and there's always two trees, there were two historic trees in front of Betsy Williams cottage. [Mm hm.] In the postcards and old photos I had seen in the past, the way that the angle lined up with the cottage and the statue and the tree, the second tree was always right behind. Right behind it. I had missed it all this time! Maybe you could describe this photo, what does it look like? This is a postcard, I think from about 1905.
Renee Gamba: 32:32
So of course you see, you know, some other shrubbery and things and you can kind of see there's two trees
Doug Still: 32:39
There's the Betsey William Sycamore, looking huge, there. towering over the cottage. [Yes.] And then a very large tree on the other side of the path, it looks like, with benches. [Mm hm.] And so I can tell when you first showed these to me - I got a picture of it and shared this with another arborist that I know - Tom Morra - and we both determined this is a mulberry tree. So in the late 18th century and early 19th century, they encouraged property owners to plant mulberry trees. It's not sort of the weed tree that it is now. It was desired because they thought that we could recreate the silkworm industry, because silkworms love mulberry trees and feeding off mulberry leaves. And that was a potential cottage industry, so to speak. And so they were planted in front of homes. It was a mulberry tree and I had missed it all these years in the old postcards. It was just waiting to be noticed. It was standing behind the glory that is the Betsey Williams Sycamore, just as Rhoda Williams had quietly stood, quite literally, behind Betsey Williams.
It was an important part of that original landscape, the core image of Roger Williams Park, just as Rhoda played a vital role in preserving the farm. For that reason, I feel we've got to give this tree its due. I hereby proclaim, with the powers given unto me by myself, that from henceforth its name is now the Rhoda Williams Mulberry.
But finally, how old is the Betsey William Sycamore? Without drilling in to do a core sample of the trunk, which is something I really wouldn't want to do because of the wounding involved, I'm giving a new estimate based on two things. Number one, the large trees described at the 1877 ceremony, and as seen in the photos we just looked at, could easily be 100 years old. This is not a stretch. And number two, there was such a thing as bridal trees back in the colonial and post-colonial era. When a new couple built a house It was a tradition among some to plant two trees in the front yard to symbolize unity and longevity. Elm trees were documented bridal trees and sycamores, too. But as we discussed, homeowners were also encouraged to plant mulberry trees, and they were the rage for a period of time. So it's conceivable to me that these two trees the American sycamore, and the mulberry were planted as bridal trees when the cottage was built in 1773, or 1782, as I suspect. That puts the age of our sycamore at at least 240 years old. I challenge anyone to come up with a better theory.
We don't know what happened to the Rhoda Williams Mulberry, or how long it lived. I know that it lived until 1925 as Rene and I found it in a little known catalog of trees in the park. My guess is that the 140 plus year old tree broke apart and succumbed to age as mulberries do. And back to Renee... [Music]
As Museum director and also as a Rhode Islander, what meaning does this tree have for you?
Renee Gamba: 36:04
I've been coming to this park since I was little. When you come into the park, it's one of the things that you always remember, something that I recall always being here and looking at is that tree and a memory for many people because it's the one thing that's been constant. As you said, it's been here for a period of time.
Doug Still: 36:27
It's part of the sense of place.
Renee Gamba: 36:29
Yes. You know that trees still stands.
Doug Still: 36:32
Thanks for speaking with me today and taking me up into the archives.
Renee Gamba: 36:37
Doug Still: 36:38
Well, that's the story of the Betsey William Sycamore, at least through my eyes. I hope I've done it a solid. I've also gotten to know Betsey Williams, with whom the sycamore’s intricately linked. She lived just about her whole life beneath that tree, drawing comfort from it again and again through changing times. Rhoda and the Rhoda Williams Mulberry should never be forgotten either.
I hope you'll listen in to future episodes of This Old Tree. Each time we'll learn about a new heritage tree somewhere in the world, past or present, and its human stories. I hope you'll subscribe and also find This Old Tree on Facebook and Instagram. We'll also begin a segment called Tree Story Shorts, where you can submit your own one to three minute story about the tree that's had the most meaning in your life. Just record it on your voice memo app and email it to me, see the show notes for the email.
Lastly, I'd like to thank Renee Gamba and Ruth Macaulay for appearing on the show, and our readers Robb Barnard, Ed Nardell, Martha Douglas-Osmundon, Andy Sabo, Margaret Sabo, and Laura Maxwell. Martha Douglas-Osmundson is our editor. Here's arborist and songwriter Dee Lee to take us out with his music. Thank you for joining us, see you next time.
This Old Tree theme song - Dee Lee: 37:56
This old tree, standing here for more than four centuries. I wonder what you'd say if you could talk to me about what it's like to be, this old tree. Shadow and shade, kids down the block are selling lemonade. Send them down to cool breezes sweet cascade, tailor made by this old tree. In 1600 you were just a seed, reaching bothers sky, high. Waiting for a chance to take your place in the warm sunshine. Here I go, high above the place where the people grow, leave my troubles on the ground far below, so I can get to know, this old tree. Summer sparkle in your leaves. Autumn winds will bring relief. Winter calls for you to sleep. Spring returns again in green. But the town - ships on the water side spy your royal crown. Sentinel of green, two points off starboard bow, homeward bound to this old tree. In 1800 you felt the thunder or roll, lightning split the sky, high. Though the fire raged in the little town below, you managed to survive, this scar upon your side. This old tree, reach out and touch a living history! Beneath my hands an ancient mystery, how small I am by this old tree. How small I am by this old tree.