Every day for 40 years, John D. Sweetman sat under an old oak tree in his yard and waved to passing cars on Route 896.
He was “a working man”, said his great-grandson Matthew Sweetman; so when he retired from working on the farm he had bought in the 1940s, he wanted to sit outside, smoke his pipe and talk to people.
Pennsylvania-based artist Kathy Ruck was one of many people who passed Sweetman’s Farm on her way to work, and seeing John Sweetman under the tree became part of her daily commute for nearly a decade.
“It made everyone happy to see him there,” Ruck said.
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Even after the death of John Sweetman in 1990 and the sale of parts of the farm and their conversion into luxury homes, the White Oak survived. And then, on June 7, it fell.
“I was in disbelief,” Matthew Sweetman said.
The tree – which Matthew Sweetman estimated to be over 300 years old – had always seemed “a bit invincible” to him. He said he was at the beach when his father, who lived next door to the farm, called to tell him the tree had “completely toppled over”. He thought his father was exaggerating, but when he saw pictures of the fallen tree, he immediately rushed home.
There he found the massive oak tree lying in the middle of the street, completely blocking traffic. He had also destroyed some power lines. According to White Clay Creek State Park – which runs along Route 896 – the road was closed for more than 24 hours. Nearby park entrances have also been temporarily closed.
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Matthew Sweetman posted photos of Delaware Department of Transportation crews clearing the street on Facebook, writing that he was “completely horrified” to see what had happened. The tree was a “symbol of (his) family”, he said. He remembers celebrating countless birthdays, anniversaries and family reunions under his branches.
He wasn’t the only one devastated by the news.
Hundreds of Delawares flocked to the comments to share their own memories of the tree and John Sweetman waving at them from under it.
Ruck, although not a Newark resident, said hearing the tree had fallen still felt like “losing an old friend.” Fortunately, she had already done her part to commemorate him.
In 2007, after studying the tree “for a long time”, Ruck made a watercolor of it. She chose to depict it in winter, when all the leaves were gone, because she loved being able to see the “twisted, old, gnarled” branches. The painting quickly sold out at an exhibition, and Ruck still sells digitized prints to this day.
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“I’m so happy to have captured (the tree) in a painting when it was in all its glory,” she said. “That’s one way he could live.”
Matthew Sweetman is also doing his part to celebrate the tree’s legacy. He has spent days hauling logs to his father’s house, where he hopes to use them to build a piece of furniture and a cane – “something that (he) can have forever to remember the tree and of (his) great-grandfather by.”
A local woman offered to make a wooden picture frame for him. Matthew Sweetman said he planned to use it to display a photo of his great-grandfather under the oak tree.
“It’s so humbling to know that so many people care about the tree,” said Matthew Sweetman. “And then remembering my great-grandfather, especially more than 30 years after his passing… It’s truly remarkable.”