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Lake Ronkonkoma's beloved copper beech tree, planted in 1820, is dying, must come down, community leaders say

Virginia Schutte, property owner, left, Todd Arnett, sculptor,

Virginia Schutte, property owner, left, Todd Arnett, sculptor, right, and Ellyn Okvist, president of the Lake Ronkonkoma Heritage Association, stand near a 200-year-old tree that is slated to be cut down and turned into a wood carving sculpture in Ronkonkoma, Sept. 3, 2015. Credit: Ed Betz

Lake Ronkonkoma residents are preparing to say a reluctant farewell to a tree planted nearly two centuries ago in honor of the Pilgrims' arrival in the New World.

The tree's owner and civic leaders say the European copper beech -- 80 to 100 feet tall, and 28 feet in circumference -- is dying and must be removed before it falls, endangering vehicles passing by on Lake Shore Road or bringing down power lines. They are planning ceremonies to be held as the tree is taken down by a Seaford landscaping company.

"It kind of breaks my heart," said Virginia Schutte, whose family has owned the property where the tree stands for more than 40 years. "This year you could probably count the leaves that are on it, there are so few. I started to say something's wrong."

Ellyn Okvist, president of the Lake Ronkonkoma Heritage Association, said the tree was one of five imported from England and planted by a local family in 1820 to mark the bicentennial of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. The one at Schutte's home is one of two still standing, Okvist said. The other, a European purple beech, is a half-mile down Lake Shore Road, she said.

The landscaping firm has agreed to donate $37,000 worth of work to bring the tree down, Okvist said. She is spearheading a drive to raise $4,000 to pay workers; as of last week, the effort had raised $270.

Schutte and Okvist said they realized the tree was dying when it didn't sprout its distinctive burgundy leaves over the past two springs. This year, the tree was bare on top, and branches began falling off.

No date has been set for taking down the tree. Okvist said residents will ring bells, read poetry and conduct a ceremony modeled on Japanese traditions for honoring a fallen tree.

"We never thought that this tree would go before our lifetime," Okvist said. "We thought that it would outlive us because it's been around for so long."

Experts say the European copper beech has a typical life span of 150 to 200 years.

Not all of the tree will be carted away. Lake Ronkonkoma tree sculptor Todd Arnett has agreed to carve a sculpture out of the stump.

At Schutte's request, Arnett will carve an Indian princess -- in honor of the local legend of an American Indian girl who drowned in Lake Ronkonkoma and has haunted it ever since. The final design and size will depend on how much rot he finds, Arnett said.

"I've never carved a beech tree before," Arnett said. "The tree is going to dictate what we do, totally."

Schutte said the tree has been a point of pride in her family. Her sister, Florence Hills, named her business Beechwood Preschool after the tree, and Schutte recalled spotting it during boat rides on Lake Ronkonkoma with her son, Justin, now 41, of Sayville.

"I can remember going out on the lake with my son and asking him, 'Where's the largest tree?' " Schutte said. "And it's our tree."

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