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Lopped Trees Remainders of Colonial Long Island

Footnotes to Long Island History

Lopped Trees Reminder of Long Island
November 2, 1967

by

Thomas R. Bayles



The lopped tree on Oak Crest Dr. in Middle Island.

 

        A drive along many of the older roads in Suffolk County on Long Island reveals large trees whose trunks grew upward from the ground for two or three feet, then horizontally and finally high into the air. The explanation of the purpose of these right angled tree trunks is that they are the remains of  living fences, which surrounded cultivated fields and pasture lands. Today these tree trunks attract attention because of their peculiar shape and historic associations. When they all gone the way of the old well sweeps and water wheels they will never be replaced. They are the remains of the early years in the settlement of long Island.

        A hedge fence on Long Island has always been associated with a ditch and mound. When a tract of wood was cleared, a border of trees a rod or two wide was left around the outside of the clearing and through it was dug a ditch two or three feet wide and deep, and the dirt was thrown up alongside in a mound. To dig four rods of ditch was a standard day's work for a laborer, for which he received fifty cents.

        The phrase," the face of the ditch " is often seen in old deeds in the description of property which meant the line between the mound of dirt and the ditch itself.  It is usually possible for a surveyor to determine at what point the "face" of the ditch ran.

       After the ditch had been dug there still remained the task of felling the trees length wise of the ditch so that the mound would be topped with a fence of living trees. This process was called "lopping" and the man who did the cutting had a boy assistant who climbed the tree and bent it over, so that the tree would fall in the right direction and with the least amount of cutting.

       The "lopped" tree which had been only partly cut off would continue to grow and after several years its larger upright branches would become trees which would again be lopped. In this manner of repeated loppings a fence would be maintained for a century or more until the tree grew to be three or four feet in diameter and the upright sprouts developed into large trees still attached to the original trunk.

       This kind of fence was common throughout Long island during the early years of its settlement  from around 1650 and George Washington made entries in his diary about them on his visit to Long Island in 1790, but he wrote that in his opinion they were not efficient because they were not hog tight." The settlers considered  them very efficient in preventing cattle and sheep from straying.

       There are still beautiful specimens of the old lopped tree to be seen on many of the back roads in Suffolk County and some of the best of these are located north of Pine Lake in Middle Island, which are probably over two hundred years old.

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