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In the bowels of the Connecticut Historical Society on graceful Elizabeth Street, Richard C. Malley is leading a cook's tour. As assistant director of museum collections, and curator of technology, Malley knows his way around the museum's extensive holdings, both the pieces on display and those stored away. Today, he's hunting for pieces from Hartford's legendary Charter Oak, the tree that adorns the Connecticut quarter-dollar. The society has furniture from the tree, picture frames, jewelry, napkin rings - and simple, undeveloped hunks of the tree, what society employees call "chunks of chartah."
That the long-dead tree towers over all other state symbols is a little ironic. The legend, most likely, is just that. So, as Malley leads a merry tour through Colonial clothing and old tavern signs, let's get the debunking out of the way.
The mammoth white oak that once crowned a hill just off Main Street was important to the Suckiauke Indians who lived in the area that would be Hartford, according to the 1938 book "The Story of the Charter Oak." The tree stood roughly where a brick apartment building stands now, on Charter Oak Place, said Ernest R. Shaw, who as owner and operator of Heritage Trails Sightseeing Tours knows Hartford cold. The building boasts a commemorative plaque. A round obelisk monument across the street also marks the area.
The tree was huge even in colonial times, Shaw said, and in the mid 1630s, when land was cleared for the future home of future colonial governor George Wyllys, the natives successfully pleaded that the tree be spared.
In 1639, representatives from the area met and adopted what's known as the Fundamental Orders, widely considered the first written constitution in the Western world. A few decades later, residents decided to approach King Charles II for a charter that reflected the Orders. The charter, then considered fairly favorable to the colonists, was granted in 1662. But with a change in monarchs, James II, came a change in attitudes. Connecticut was deemed too independent, so the king sent Sir Edmund Andros to retrieve the charter. He marched into Hartford in late 1687 and sat with a group of colonial leaders at a meeting house on Main Street - perhaps Sanford Tavern - that stood near the Old State House, where The Travelers' main office stands today.
That much is considered historical fact. The story trails off from here: As the two sides negotiated, with the charter laid out on the table between them, the room was suddenly plunged into darkness, and when the candles were relit, the document was gone. Capt. Joseph Wadsworth, stationed outside the meeting room, was supposed to have taken the document, rushed down the road and hidden it in the trunk of the massive tree on the Wyllys property, where it stayed until it could be safely brought out again.
Historians say the latter part of the story has a lot of holes in it - according to a 1984 historical society report, the story didn't even emerge until years later - but so what?
"It's really more symbolic," said Malley. "The hook is freedom. It was an act to preserve our rights, and you can carry that through the Revolution up to today."
Without a back story, said Malley, "white oak is white oak." Regardless of historical facts, the tree's place in history expanded. Charles Dickens was said to have become fascinated by it. In 1854, some New Haven firefighters attending a convention in Hartford crowded into a hollow of the tree - 24 of them. When a storm blew it down in August 1856, Samuel Colt's armory band played a dirge, and under The Courant's headline, "The Charter Oak is Prostrate!" a story said: "Chief Justices and Reverend Doctors intermixed with sturdy laborers to view the fallen Monarch ... and many a manly eye was nourished."
The property by now had passed to Isaac W. Stuart, a writer who had devoted no small amount of effort to the tree's preservation. Once the tree hit the ground, Stuart put equal effort into preserving its legend, said Malley.
The legend grew. Mark Twain wrote, wryly: "Do you suppose that that relic will ever give out? They have already taken more wood out of it than would build a couple of steamboats, but still it holds out."
A similar phenomenon surrounded the wood of the renovated USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides," said Malley. "A lot of pieces of wood turned out not to be sound and were turned into little mementoes," he said. "It was said that if you brought all those mementoes together, you could rebuild the ship two or three times over."
Mementoes carry weight because they connect us to the past, said Malley. So how do you know if a chunk's for real?
"A lot of it has to do with provenance," said Malley. "You need to know the owners, and you need to know where it came from." He said the society once received a limb from the oak from the Brooklyn Historical Society. It came in the mail.
"There's a lot of stuff floating around," he said.
Neither the myth nor the provenance of the artifacts seem to extinguish the fascination for the wood. In one room lined with metal shelves, Malley holds up a gold-tinged napkin ring. Here is a large painting of the tree dwarfing the two figures in front of it. Here's a tall case clock, the veneer of which is from the fabled tree, and the top-most part has a detailed carving of the actual tree.
And here is a small stack of chunks.
Similar artifacts are scattered throughout the state. There's a "chunka chartah" upstairs in Frances McCook's old bedroom in the Butler-McCook House, maintained by Connecticut Landmarks, formerly the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society. McCook was the last family member to live in the house. She deeded the property to the society in the '60s and died in 1971. She was one of four in a group of seven siblings who never married and never left their family home. Besides the piece of white oak, the house chronicles in happy detail the evolution of the capital city.
Among other artifacts, a permanent exhibit at the Old State House - "History Is All Around Us" - contains a fragment of the original charter. The Connecticut State Library on Capitol Avenue has oak picture frames, miniature furniture and one of the original charters - framed by wood from the tree.
And for living memorials, a few of the tree's descendants are scattered around the city, including in Bushnell Park and on the grounds of the state Capitol.