Oakland Cemetery is an encyclopedia of Sag Harbor’s long and colorful history, and residents are mobilizing to combat a threat to that history from the trees that give the site its name.
The years and storms have taken their toll. Large-diameter dead and dying oak trees have toppled or dropped limbs onto headstones and monuments of members of some of the village’s most notable families in recent years. And dozens of trees threaten to do more damage.
So now the community has come together with 17 tree service companies for Oaks for Oakland, a volunteer program to remove 21 dead oaks, prune dozens of other damaged trees and then plant new saplings to return the 10-acre site to its historic appearance.
“You’ve got great old monuments that represent the history of Sag Harbor, and if these trees come down on them, you’re destroying the history of Sag Harbor,” said resident Edmund Hollander, a landscape architect and member of the Sag Harbor Tree Fund who conceived of Oaks for Oakland. He recruited neighbor Neil Slevin, a member of the Sag Harbor Historical Society. He, in turn, got Mayor Sandra Schroeder onboard and the Tree Fund, Save Sag Harbor and the Sag Harbor Partnership also are participating.
Hollander pointed to a dead oak looming over the 1867 monument of whaling Captain Benjamin Huntting and noted: “You’ve got that big dead tree hanging over this monument. It’s only a matter of time.
“Although East End architectural landmarks have long been acknowledged and celebrated, historic landscapes haven’t enjoyed the same reverence and attention,” Hollander added.
Crews to remove trees
The program kicks off Monday when the tree firms from Westbury to Amagansett solicited by Hollander will send crews to the cemetery on Jermain Street to remove dead trees.
Tim Blenk, owner of the Southampton tree care company bearing his name, said he will bring about 10 workers and two trucks to the cemetery because “we want to give something back to the community. It’s very technical work because of the headstones.”
The cemetery was established in 1840 on the site of a manufacturing plant called the Oakland Works when the Colonial-era Old Burying Ground reached its capacity. It has always been a nondenominational cemetery that is the final resting place for people whose diversity mirrors that of the demographics of the village — multiple ethnicities and socio-economic groups. Among them is Queen Olive L. Pharaoh of the Montaukett tribe.
Oakland is filled with members of East End founding families with still-familiar names: Huntting, Havens, Corwin, Latham, Hildreth, Topping, Halsey, Conklin, Babcock, Hallock, Talmadge, Dering, Cuffee.
The cemetery boasts of more 18th- and 19th-century ship captains than any other cemetery on Long Island, not surprising since Sag Harbor was one of the biggest whaling ports in the country. The most prominent monument is that of skipper John E. Howell. Shaped like a broken ship’s mast and also honoring five other whaling captains lost in the Pacific fishery, it is one of the monuments that has been damaged by the falling trees. A repaired crack remains visible. Whaling Captain David Hand is buried with his five wives, all of whom he outlived before dying at age 81.
Famous names buried
Many celebrated names chose to be buried at Oakland. They include ballet master George Balanchine and two ballerinas who danced for him, Alexandra Danilova and Tamara Glassberg, authors Spaulding Gray, Nelson Algren and James Salter, and playwright Lanford Wilson.
There are soldiers who served from the American Revolution to Iraq. Robert A. McDade, an army colonel and hero of the Vietnam War whose story is told in the book and film “We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young” is buried at Oakland, as is Jordan C. Haerter, a Marine who died in 2008 in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
There are headstones dating from before 1840 because some graves were moved from the Old Burying Ground to keep families together.
The Oakland Cemetery board of directors, who run the nonprofit burial ground with a tiny staff, has endorsed the effort because it has neither the money nor manpower to deal with the trees. Hollander estimates that the removal of the 21 trees would cost about $100,000 if the companies weren’t donating their efforts.
The tree companies are expected to return next year. And starting in 2017, new oaks will be planted so “it stays Oakland for generations to come,” Hollander said. A fundraising drive is being organized and contributions to Oaks for Oakland can be mailed to the Sag Harbor Tree Fund, PO Box 3133, Sag Harbor, NY 11963.
“Trees we can replace,” Hollander said. “The monuments are irreplaceable.”