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The legacy of Ledyard’s Great Oak

Vines, ferns and weeds are slowly creeping toward an enormous, decaying stump in Gales Ferry. Eventually these “pioneer” plants will envelop the last vestiges of a magnificent tree.

More than 70 feet tall, with a crown that stretched for 105 feet and a trunk circumference of 21 feet, the Ledyard Oak — also known as the Larabee Oak, the Graves Oak, or simply the Great Oak — once stood as Connecticut’s biggest and nation’s second-largest white oak.

Native Americans held tribal councils beneath its shade; a drawing of the tree appears today on Ledyard’s official town seal. Likely having sprouted from an acorn at about the same time Sir Francis Drake sailed the seas, the Ledyard Oak was estimated to be 400 years old when it succumbed to an infestation of gypsy moth caterpillars in 1969; authorities kept the tree standing with cables a couple more years before finally cutting it down.

Though long gone, the tree now serves as an inspiration and namesake for one of the town’s most rewarding natural areas: The Great Oak Greenway. With miles of hiking trails, a historic home and handsome garden park, this swath of forest, streams and wetlands comprises an expansive corridor of contiguous open space.

Such “connectivity” is what helps make The Great Oak Greenway such a valuable asset, said Julie DuPont-Woody, who has been instrumental in acquiring and preserving its newest sections.

In 2018, the state approved a $675,000 grant application prepared by DuPont-Woody, enabling the Avalonia Land Conservancy to purchase two parcels totaling 225 acres on opposite sides of Long Cove Road that are now The Atkinson Family Preserve and the Thompson Brook Preserve.

A 73-lot housing subdivision had been proposed on the Atkinson tract, a former farm.

DuPont-Woody, Avalonia’s vice president and a member of the Ledyard Conservation Commission, lives adjacent to the greenway and trains regularly for ironman triathlons on its trails. As a quality assurance officer of a certified environmental analysis laboratory, with a Ph.D in chemistry, she spent a year preparing the application by photographing various plant and animal species, drawing maps of trails, and compiling reams of supporting data.

Along with these new preserves, the Great Oak Greenway includes the adjoining 322-acre Pine Swamp Wildlife Corridor, also owned by Avalonia, as well as the town of Ledyard’s 110-acre Great Oak Park.

The greenway also abuts property along the Morgan Pond reservoir owned by Groton Utilities. Discussions are underway to access part of this parcel for a section of a 14-mile Tri-Town Trail connecting the Preston Community Park and Bluff Point Coastal Reserve in Groton.

Many of the trails our hiking group traversed are former farm roads — wide, relatively smooth and not particularly hilly, making them ideal for families with young children. We passed vernal pools, stonewalls and small streams before reaching Great Oak Park.

Here, we stopped briefly to admire the Nathan Lester House, an 18th-century farmhouse that serves as a museum for the Ledyard Historical Society, as well as the picturesque Great Oak Garden, maintained by the Ledyard Garden Club.

Continuing our hike through the woods, we approached a clearing. If it weren’t for a brief message inscribed on a nearby sign, a casual stroller could inadvertently bypass the remnants of The Ledyard Oak.

Not far from the decomposing stump, another white oak has begun to spread its branches. Planted in 2009 by Sprigs & Twigs, a local landscaping company, the tree has a way to go before it approaches the dimensions of the Ledyard Oak.

It serves as a symbol of hope for the future.

More information about trails within the Great Oak Greenway is available on the land conservancy’s website, avalonia.org.

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