The Box Tree

"For centuries God’s happy birds

Found cover safe with me

A hundred years man’s written words

I guarded faithfully

 

Now life is over; naught remains

But one long peace for me

And in the grateful hearts of man

This honored memory"

The Poem inscribed upon the plaque of the Box Tree

The attribution for the poem, per the Quogue Historical Society publication “Remembering Quogue,” reads as follows: “E. Walters, corrected to read Mrs. Fairfield.” 

Box Tree Remnant, Photo: Llewellyn Chapman

A very large oak tree, partly hollow, stood for decades along Old Country Road in East Quogue and was a virtual post office for Quogue's early settlers. They called it the "old box tree'' and placed their mail in the tree's hollow center to be picked up and exchanged by post riders. In 1894, the old tree was damaged by fire, and a surviving fragment was brought to the Quogue Post Office.
 
William Post, one of Quogue’s most prominent citizens, took charge of the preservation, organizing a special group known as The Box Tree Club, to look after the relic’s special interest. Mr. Post and the Box Tree Club had it placed on the front porch of Henry D. Burton’s store on Quogue Street. Burton had just been appointed Village Postmaster, and the Box Tree remnant advertised his store as the official Post Office.

Today, that portion of the tree is still on display at the Old Schoolhouse Museum on Quogue Street. In 1894, a brass plaque was affixed to the remnant. The plaque reads:

"IN PERPETUATION OF THE MEMORY OF THE BOX-TREE

A repository for the U.S. Mail more than 100 years ago,

the only Free Post Office known was destroyed by fire

July 4, 1893."

 

 

 

During the Colonial Era, before the US Postal Service was created (1775), and long before railroads were built, post riders on horseback picked up and dropped off mail at certain stones or bushes located along the trails and post roads they traveled. Colonial America had a relatively high literacy rate, but sending mail was prohibitively expensive, and done primarily for business and government correspondence. The average colonist received about one letter per year. This was for the best, since many of the letters probably ended up as mulch, or lining the nests and dens of various woodland creatures. The post riders carried a two-section mailbag called a portmanteau, usually of heavy canvas and leather, waterproofed in various ways. These bags were passed along from courier to courier along the routes.

 

The Box Tree monument marks the spot where a very large white oak tree (Quercus alba) once stood, close to the intersection of Old Country Road, running east to west, and Lewis Road, which leads north to Riverhead. Various accounts say it was naturally hollowed out, or had a hole hacked into it with an axe. When Long Island post riders began regular service from NYC to Greenport in 1765, the Box Tree became a drop-off and pick-up point for the mail.

 

At some point a box was placed inside, thus becoming the first known letterbox in North America. One historian maintains the box was nailed to the tree; I would venture to say that over the hundred-plus years the Box Tree was in use these discrepancies could all be reconciled. However it came about, it was a huge improvement over stashing the mail beneath random rocks and shrubbery.

Although the USPS Rural Free Delivery Service was not instituted officially until 1891, the Box Tree was essentially the first RFD post box as well.

 

Following the Revolution, in 1787, twice weekly stage-coach service was established between Greenport and Brooklyn; the plaque standing behind the marker reflects this. It was a two-day trip each way, which should be of some solace to the weekend LIE crawlers of today. By 1835 stagecoach service to New York City ran through the Quogues from East Hampton as well. According to the May 17, 1902 edition of The Brooklyn Times, the mighty oak “was a favorite meeting place for the villagers, and many matters pertaining to the town were discussed at this spot.” It was also reported that “a light-fingered grocery clerk often hid a quantity of his loot in the hole in the tree until he could get it again at a later time.” This was no mere mailbox.

 

 

 

The Box Tree fell into disuse after the openings of Post Offices in Quogue (1828) and Atlanticville (1858); by the time the railroad arrived in 1871 it was basically a local curiosity. On July 4th, 1893 it was substantially damaged by a fire of uncertain origin. I found three scenarios; I leave it to you to pick the one you feel most probable.

 

1) Misguided young patriots, over-celebrating Independence Day, stuffed the Box Tree with firecrackers, setting it ablaze.

 

2) A curious East Quogue child pestered his mother about the origins of life until she said “babies came from the old Box Tree.” He and a friend then lit a fire to illuminate the interior, looking for evidence.

 

3) Enterprising junior exterminators attempted to burn out a nest of squirrels inside the Box Tree, but lost control of the process.

 

However it came about, July 4th 2013 marked the 120th anniversary of the event. There is no handy term for the 120th of anything; Diamond Anniversaries mark 60-year milestones, so I propose commemorating the Double Diamond Jubilee of the Burning of The Old Box Tree.....

 

 I was allowed to view the relic, and sort through documents in their archives. I noted that the remnant has been sawn down to about a third of its original size, for ease of transport. I also found a few additional poems that had been submitted for the plaque, in the elegant cursive that has gone the way of so many other civilities.

 

Although the Box Tree remnant has abandoned East Quogue for a more genteel locale, the monument itself is in good hands, and not likely to wander off anytime soon.

 

When the East Quogue Civic Association stopped tending to the site, the Mulvaney family stepped up. John and his wife Kristina, upon whose property the marker sits, built a mound behind it, planting perennials to set off the shrine. Their four-and-a half-year old daughter Kayden, with a little help from Dad, assembled the cannons that caught my eye, and triggered this Box Tree investigation. They should be commended......

 

East Quogue’s Box Tree was the first post box in North America..... In 1939, a prominent anthropologist by the name of William Neil Smith II asserted that Atlanticville was renamed East Quogue because “much of the village’s mail went to Atlantic City, NJ by mistake.” Plus ça change…

 

September 2, 2013 
By Llewellyn Chapman

 

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