STANTON, Del. (AP) — At the historic Hale-Byrnes House, an enduring relic of the revolutionary era stands tall and mighty but may be on its final breath.
The more than 300-year-old sycamore tree played host to a Sept. 6, 1777, council of war led by General George Washington. At the time, the tree was fully grown.
Now, though leaves still adorn the tree’s top, its hollow trunk and leaning stature may signify its approaching end.
Members of the Delaware Society for Preservation of Antiquities board manage the Hale-Byrnes House and have been working on a proper way to memorialize the tree, which is located right outside the house off Route 7.
Board member K. Lynn King has facilitated some of the group’s planning since last year. They secured Pamela and Bryant White, two experienced Revolutionary War artists, to paint a portrait of the tree. The board is asking for $5,000 in donations from the community to ensure the painting can be completed.
Ms. King said the portrait will memorialize the historic gathering that occurred three days after the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge and five days prior to the Battle of Brandywine.
Delaware historian and author Kim Rogers Burdick, who has lived in the house with her husband since 2008, said that around eight to 10 men, including Washington, occupied the house for one day. They came from Bucks County in Pennsylvania.
“They got word that the British were coming, so Washington marched them down here,” Ms. Burdick said.
Famous figures like Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox and Robert Kirkwood likely accompanied Washington. However, perhaps the most well-known man aside from the future president was an officer by the name of Marquis de Lafayette.
It was under the tree and in the house where Lafayette celebrated his 20th birthday, amidst planning for the campaign’s upcoming defense of Philadelphia.
Ms. King said that an optimistic timeline for the tree’s painting to be completed is early September, so it can be released around Lafayette’s birthday. Regardless, she has complete confidence in the artists handling the 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 reenactors, which gives them a historical knowledge and background that some artists may not have.
“The way they interpret 18th century events is just amazing,” said Ms. King. “I wouldn’t have anyone else but them doing it.”
The tree was joined by the house in 1750, on a property originally owned by a potter named Samuel Hale. David Finney soon bought the property and possibly built the house, though Hale may have been involved as well. By 1754, Daniel Byrnes, a Quaker miller, acquired the property, and added a kitchen that gave a modern feel.
“It was a rich man’s house,” Ms. Burdick said of what the building looked like after Byrnes made his many additions and upgrades.
The expansive kitchen and modern design contributed to Washington deciding to hold a meeting at the two-story house, according to Ms. Burdick.
As the towering sycamore stands the test of time, both the tree and the house have survived bouts of abandonment.
Around 1960, Ms. Burdick said, the Delaware Department of Transportation aimed to knock the house down, with no preservation laws in place to stop them.
It had been abandoned and teenagers around the area often stopped in to occupy the house recreationally, leaving rooms damaged and unclean.
But a woman by the name of Marguerite “Carita” Boden would not allow the historic house to be erased. She and other locals lobbied for historical preservation around the state, Ms. Burdick said.
“The story is they went down to Legislative Hall,” Ms. Burdick said, “and DelDOT called the place an ‘attractive nuisance.’”
“And Carita said, ‘Well, so am I.’”
A few decades earlier, the house was owned by the Boyce family, but the last remaining member that Ms. Boden could find was in a nursing home. Ms. Burdick said that Ms. Boden wrote out a check to buy the house then and there.
Soon thereafter, it was deeded to the Delaware chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution before being turned over to the state’s Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs in the 1970s. Since then, the house has been in safe hands and used as a place for reenactments, speakers and events that commemorate its historical relevance.
With preservation laws in place and recognition from the state as a historic site, the outlook for the Hale-Byrnes House is much brighter than it was 60 years ago. But the focus is now on preserving the tree that stands taller than the house itself.
Despite the tree’s hollow inside and old age, state arborists have performed annual assessments on the tree, with no pressing concerns thus far, according to Ms. Burdick.
However, over 300 years takes a toll, and Ms. Burdick and Ms. King both are skeptical how much longer the tree can persist. That is why they sought out the Whites — to bring the tree and the revolutionary officers who surrounded it to life in portrait.
“They’re just too awesome,” Ms. King said of the artists. “You can almost put yourself into their paintings.”