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If These Leaves Could Talk

Birthday party for centuries-old tree in Travilah.

Sometime before the Declaration of Independence was signed, an acorn hit the ground in what is now Travilah.

A white oak grew from that acorn, and a town grew around the tree. “Some trees are just lucky. There are good growing conditions and somebody cared enough,” said Clare Cavicchi, historic preservation planner with Park and Planning.

The tree, located in front of the Glenvilah Shopping Center on Travilah Road, is now estimated to be more than 250 years old, said Dana Semmes of Hopkins and Porter Construction, which owns the shopping center.

Semmes has been organizing a celebration of the tree — “Sort of the Travilah Oak’s birthday,” Semmes said. “We do plan to make it annual.”

It is not possible to know the tree’s exact age without cutting it down, but Semmes feels that some attention should be drawn to the specimen tree. “It is, by any standard, an awe inspiring tree, which we want the community to be more aware of, use and enjoy,” he said.

A small park, open to the public, has been built around the tree. “Only the landscapers and a few bikers seem to go there,” Semmes said. “So we hope an annual event celebrating its birthday will have the effect of introducing it to its neighbors.”

PART OF that celebration will draw attention to the tree’s centuries-long life. “Through the Oak’s lifetime, what did it see?” Semmes said.

One thing the tree “saw” was the development of the area now known as Travilah.

In the 1780s, when the tree was in its 30s, the area was farmland, owned by a man named Archibald Orme who owned hundreds of acres in the area, said Cavicchi. “A lot of it was operated by tenant farmers, while the owners lived in Georgetown” she said. “Most all of the farms were tobacco.”

A crossroads developed in the area, and in 1883, when the tree was in its 130s, Travilah Clagett was named postmaster. “Before he was postmaster, it wasn’t a place. It didn’t have a name until there was a post office,” said Sally Simmons, a Potomac resident who has researched the history of the area.

CLAGETT WAS ONLY postmaster from January to June of that year, said Simmons, and he died of tuberculosis in December.

“The community reached its peak at the turn of the century,” Cavicchi said.

The crossroads had several churches and a blacksmith, said Simmons. The farmers in the area would make use of the proximity to the canal. “The canal was the main thing that held this together,” Simmons.

In 1910, when the tree was around 160 years old, a town hall was built just around the corner from the tree. The hall is now a private residence.

“The town hall was the center of everything,” Simmons said. “It was just a big community centered around the town hall and the general store.”