The historic Mercer Oak in Princeton Battlefield Park succumbed to strong winds Friday — collapsing more than 200 years after the Revolutionary War general for whom it was named.
Though it has lived more than 250 years, the tree survived only a few days after the death of Richard Baker, who dedicated nearly 25 years of his life to preserving the mighty white oak and other landmarks at the Princeton battlefield.
"He was a great historian. He knew every bit of Princeton history, right off the top of his head," said Bob Wells, chairman of the Princeton Township Shade Tree Commission. "We're losing bits of history when guys like him and the oak pass away."
The memorial service for Baker, who served as president of the Princeton Battlefield Area Preservation Society, was held at 2 p.m. Thursday. The tree fell the same time the next day.
"The oak gave out when he did. He put a lot of time and money into protecting that tree," said John Mills, curator of the Princeton battlefield since 1985. "He really looked after it."
Mills witnessed the fall of the historic landmark himself. "A woman came in and said, 'The Mercer Oak is falling over,' " he said. "I got out there, and a few minutes later I heard a large crack, and the last two limbs fell down."
"I'm feeling the loss," Mills said. "I'm not going to be able to refer to it when I'm giving tours. I can't talk to it anymore. It's just not there."
"It stood all alone. It was a point of reference on the field. It had a different aspect for every type of weather," he added.
The giant oak was named for General Hugh Mercer, who was stabbed by the bayonet of an English soldier during the Battle of Princeton in 1777.
According to legend, after being wounded, Mercer refused to leave the field and abandon his troops, Mills said. He collapsed underneath the white oak. At the conclusion of the battle, Mercer was taken to the nearby Clarke House where he later died as a result of his injuries.
During its life, the oak became an important icon for the community, serving as the symbol of Princeton Township and Mercer Fire Co. 3.
The Mercer Oak also found a place in Hollywood history, appearing in the final scenes of the 1994 movie "IQ," which starred Meg Ryan.
'Many a story'
The tree also played an important role in the lives of many Princeton residents.
"It was around here a lot longer than me, and I've been here for a long time," said Bob Mooney, who has lived in Princeton for 78 years. "I'm really sorry to see it go. It is a landmark of old Princeton, and it's seen many a story."
Alan Goodheart, another member of the shade tree commission, said he has fond childhood memories of the tree. "We used to ride our bikes out there when we were kids, and we paid absolutely no attention to it," he said. "But it was how you knew where to go, it was a place to meet."
For Tom Stanga, who has lived in Princeton his entire life, the tree carried a special significance. He and his wife Mary were married underneath the oak by former Township mayor Richard Woodbridge on Feb. 29, 1992. "It was our favorite tree," he said. "Whenever we drove by it, we always said, 'There's our tree.' "
Mills said in the past week, hundreds of people have come to the battlefield to pay their respects to the oak. "People talk to it, some cry. Some read prayers, even funeral eulogies for it," he said.
"Many people have memories of the tree. They remember climbing it when they were younger. They remember playing around it. They reminisce about it. It was a piece of history," he said.
But the Mercer Oak still lives on, in a slightly different form.
Several scions — made up of pieces from the old tree — have been re-planted around the battlefield.
"It's the same genetic material as the old tree," Wells said. "It's the new Mercer Oak, so it lives on."