DerryNews.com, Derry, New Hampshire

September 13, 2012

Column: Site of famous old oak tree is now lost to history

Rick Holmes
Derry News

---- — A few months ago Derry was visited by a film crew from the British Broadcasting Company. They were here to do a two-part TV show on the Scotch-Irish coming to America. This mass exodus started with Rev. James McGregor leaving County Londonderry in Northern Ireland in 1718 to found the Nutfield colony. This 114-square-mile grant would in time become the towns of Derry, Windham and Londonderry. While most of the next wave of Scotch-Irish emigrants settled in the southern and mid-Atlantic states, it must always be remembered that the whole thing started here.

The film crew tried to get authentic location shorts to visually tell McGregor’s story. They flew over Derry in a helicopter to get aerial shots. They filmed McGregor’s grave at Forest Hill Cemetery and did a lot of shots of East Derry. One of the TV shows highlights will be a church service at the First Parish Church by acting Pastor Sue Remick.

For a couple months, Paul Lindemann and I had worked via emails with the Belfast-based crew to set everything up before their visit. One site they really wanted to film was on the shores of Beaver Lake. It was there, underneath a sprawling oak tree, that Rev. McGregor had preached the first sermon in Derry. I explained to their producer that Beaver Lake in 1719 is definitely not like Beaver Lake in 2012! And beside no one now knows exactly where the sermon site was. Eventually they agreed and ended up filming that scene at Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown. Close enough I guess.

The story of that first sermon goes back to April 13, 1719. Under an oak tree on the eastern slope of Beaver Lake, Reverend McGregor gathered his flock to concentrate this land by asking God’s blessing. This crowd, numbering maybe 200 people, was made up of the 16 families who had followed Pastor McGregor from the village of Aghadowey, Northern Ireland. The sermon was from the book of Isaiah: “And a man shall be as a hiding place from the wind and a covert from the tempest.”

For decades the oak tree was a well known and respected land mark in town. For many it was thought to mark the symbolic spot, a mitzvah, where God was first asked to protect the town. It was cherished by the locals in the same way a beach shore rock was honored by the residents of Plymouth, Mass.

In time, the tree grew old, decayed and fell down. All that was left was a stump sticking out of the pasture on the farm of Squire John McMurphy. Still pilgrimages were made to the site where the oak tree once stood. After the squire’s death, the farm passed to his son Robert. His two sons, John and Robert Jr., were given the responsibility of plowing the hillside field that sloped down to Beaver Lake.

After a few years of plowing around the stump, the two brothers decided that enough was enough and plowed it up to “make an end to their troubles.” When the fate of the stump became known, their father was not happy. He scolded them harshly and as punishment made them plant an apple tree on the exact spot where the tree had once stood.

Years later, the fruit tree succumbed to the effects of the weather and old age. It was quickly hauled away and replaced by another apple tree. When this tree in turn died, a stone cairn, a couple feet high, was erected on the spot. In 1919, on Nutfield’s 200th birthday, this pile of rocks was marked by a sign explaining the site’s importance to the history of the town. In time however, the landowner got tired of tourist tromping through the back yard of his North Shore Road house. To keep them away, he knocked down the cairn and scattered the stones.

Today, no one knows the exact location of the old oak tree where McGregor preached that sermon 293 years ago. I suppose if someone had the time and energy he or she could figure where the spot is I can show them some photographs of the cairn’s picture in 1919. Please give me a buzz if you feel called to solve this historic mystery.

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Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry and plans to hold office hours at the municipal center. He is the former chairman of the Derry Heritage Commission. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.