Historian investigates now-felled Derry tree at the center of a local legend

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The legendary “Freedom Tree” of Derry, which some believe was planted by U.S. Founding Father Matthew Thornton. Image/Google Street View

DERRY, NH – An aged horse chestnut that was located, until this past summer, behind Association Hall in Derry is believed by some to have been planted by Matthew Thornton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. But local historian and Derry Museum of History Curator Mark Mastromarino hopes to prove — or disprove — the local legend with scientific analysis and research.

Mastromarino purchased a home at 16 North Main St., which until a recent survey was conducted, is the property on which the tree was thought to reside. Given his interest in history, and his proximity to the erstwhile deciduous, Mastromarino began investigating the tree as a personal venture.

After all, if it turns out the tree was indeed planted by a signer of the Declaration of Independence, it would be a huge discovery, Mastromarino said.

We know he put his John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence but the jury’s still out on whether Matthew Thornton planted a Freedom Tree in Derry. Image/Public Domain

As the legend goes, Thornton and other signers allegedly received a horse chestnut seed in Philadelphia after signing, and they were told to bring it home and plant it. As long as that tree is alive, it is said, freedom would flourish in America. 

Such trees are called Freedom Trees, apparently. But Mastromarino has so far been unable to prove Thornton planted this particular horse chestnut, or whether or not the passing of horse chestnut seeds in Philadelphia is an apocryphal story or something that really happened.

The former homeowner at 16 North Main Street, Laura Burnham, a longtime Derry librarian, penned the legend in 2019 for commemorative wooden bowls made from the trimmed branches of the tree by local woodturner Alan Côté. 

Commemorative bowls turned by Alan Cote of Derry. Courtesy Photo

Alas, the tree itself was not fated to live forever. Mastromarino said the owner of Association Hall at 1 Pinkerton St., Muharem Mahmutovic, had no choice but to cut down the tree in the summer, because it was rotted and hollow. 

Mastromarino said he told him there was the possibility it was historic. That may be, Mahmutovic rejoined, but Mastromarino could end up with a historic tree through his roof. 

“He said it’s really neither here nor there. Even if it is historical, it will eventually come down, and it was already dropping branches,” Mastromarino said.

Mahmutovic and Côté saved portions of the wood. Côté plans to make more bowls, which he donates to the Upper Room charity to auction off as a fundraiser.

“To date I have made five bowls with it,” Côté said.

Mastromarino said he also plans on saving a cross-section from the base of the tree, sand and stain it and hang it up at the Derry Museum of History to show various historic events that happened at different rings of the tree.

This old photo of the neighborhood, taken from the Pinkerton Academy clock tower sometime between 1887 and the 1920s shows the back of Association Hall, but does not appear to show the horse chestnut, though it’s possible it’s obscured by other trees. Photo/Archives of the Pinkerton Academy Alumni Association

But whether or not the display will be labeled the remains of a ‘Freedom Tree’ or not will likely hinge on the findings of a number of scientific analyses — a dendrochronological study of the tree rings, and a height analysis, both to determine its age, a photographic survey to find any old photographs of the tree, and most importantly, a DNA analysis to see if it matches with another rumored Freedom Tree in New Hampshire.

In support of the legend, folks like Burnham have pointed to the fact that Thornton’s historic home was located just down the road at 2 Thornton Street, the fact that the species, a horse chestnut, is unique in the area, and another signer of the Declaration of Independence, William Whipple, is said to have planted a horse chestnut in front of the Moffatt-Ladd House in Portsmouth, his former home.

While it’s asserted that Whipple’s Portsmouth tree is over 240 years old, Mastromarino said it’s alleged provenance as a gift to signers of the Declaration of Independence is maintained solely by Whipple family tradition. A plaque stating the horse chestnut was planted in 1776 after Whipple’s return home is hanging at the historic Portsmouth house. However, he has yet to find any mention of the passing of horse chestnut seeds to signers in any Revolution-era documents. 

As a former archivist, and an editor of published papers by founding fathers such as George Washington and John Adams, Mastromarino is familiar with the era.

Alan Cote at work turning a bowl. Courtesy Photo

This, however, is where DNA analysis might lend some credence to the legend. If, for example, the Portsmouth tree has the same parentage or geographic origins as the Derry tree, and, if that can be traced to Pennsylvania or thereabouts, Mastromarino would possess the first piece of evidence that would potentially plant the legend into the annals of history.

But Mastromarino is skeptical. There are already a number of facts that work against this theory, he said. For one, Mastromarino can’t find any mention of the Derry legend that predates the 1970s. 

A prominent Derry historian of the 1950s, Harriet Chase Newell, wrote several books about the historic properties in town, including Association Hall, which was built in 1875, and the Matthew Thornton House, built in 1757. She never once mentioned a Freedom Tree planted by Thornton.

An old photograph of the neighborhood, taken from the Pinkerton Academy clock tower sometime between 1887 and the 1920s shows the back of Association Hall, but does not appear to show the horse chestnut, though it’s possible it’s obscured by other trees.

And Mastromarino said the theory that both Whipple and Thornton received the seeds from their tenure at the Continental Congress is also suspect, since they weren’t in Philadelphia at the same time. Whipple signed the Declaration along with most of the signers on Aug. 2, 1776. Thornton was appointed to replace another delegate in September of that year, and didn’t make it to Philadelphia to sign the document until Nov. 4, 1776, Mastromarino said.

Still, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that seeds were distributed to Continental Congress delegates, or some other shared origin story for the seeds.

Mastromarino also pointed out that it is unclear if the Derry tree was planted on land that was owned by Thornton at the time, and if he was in fact charged with taking care of the tree, Thornton himself seemed unconcerned with the task, since he moved out of town in 1779.

Once Mastromarino gets the results from his various scientific analyses, and studies more documents from the era, he plans to publish his findings. Until then, folks will be able to invest in a piece of potential history when Côté finishes more bowls. 

Côté said he first obtained the branch wood from Burnham when the tree was pruned in 2017. A public works employee, Côté first met Burnham to address a drainage issue, and that’s when he first heard the legend of the Freedom Tree, and asked for dibs on any wood from the tree so he could make bowls from it.

Fodder for more bowls: What remains of the horse chestnut tree, roots still unknown. Courtesy Photo

He intentionally left the wood outside in the rain for a while, in order to let it start to decay slightly, which creates a “spalting” effect of dark veins in the wood.

Woodturning is Côté’s hobby, and he doesn’t intend to make any profit from the Freedom Tree bowls. 

When the tree was cut down, Côté was able to get two large trunk pieces about 4.5-feet in diameter, about 5-to-6-feet long. So, he’ll be able to make several more bowls out of that.

The largest he can make is about 16-inches in diameter. Since horse chestnut wood starts to warp and shrink at a certain point, he tends to make them between 8 to 12 inches wide.

He said horse chestnut is not as fragile as red oak, but not as strong as red cedar.

“It turns well, it’s a fairly stable wood,” Côté said. “It’s not really hard so it finishes pretty easily, it sands really easily. Overall, it’s a real nice wood to work with.”