Monday, January 27, 2014

Reroute, don't uproot: the Parkway and the Shoemaker Holly tree

The southernmost reaches of the Garden State Parkway are among the most picturesque, winding through acres of pinelands and affording broad views of coastal marshland. Only the width of two lanes in each direction, the north- and south-bound lanes are separated at points by buffers of trees and even a pond. With a little effort, you can imagine the ride as a drive through bucolic New Jersey.

The majestic Shoemaker Holly
As nice as that is, scenery wasn't the only rationale for dividing the highway. One tall, very old reason stands in the John B. Townsend Shoemaker Holly Picnic Area in the center median at milepost 22.7. Stop there, park in the northern end of the lot, and you'll easily find the tree that rerouted the Garden State Parkway.

You'll be excused if you haven't noticed it before. Despite many trips through the area, I only discovered it when researching our recent story on the holly forest at Sandy Hook. There's a tiny mention of it on the smallish brown signs marking the picnic area but that's easy to miss if you're passing at highway speed.

The Shoemaker Holly has stood for more than 300 years, making it the oldest tree of its kind in New Jersey and perhaps the nation. The Shoemaker family may have been aware of its existence before they sold their property to the Highway Authority for the construction of the Parkway, but it only became widely known in the early 1950s, when the final stretch of the highway was set to be built. The holly was directly in the planned path of the road, certain to be sacrificed in the name of progress.

Live long and prosper, Holly!
According to the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry, Millville resident and Holly Society of America founder Daniel G. Fenton led the charge to save the tree. Considering that the root of the parkway concept is to provide just that -- a park way -- preserving the Shoemaker Holly must have seemed like a natural to the Highway Authority's chief landscape architect, Gilmore Clarke. He worked with road planners to incorporate the holly into the overall design, creating a 120 yard wide island of green between north and south lanes. The holly itself is cordoned off with its own name sign and a brass plaque noting its significance in Parkway history.

The picnic area provides a pleasant stopping point for travelers, with an attractive wooded area, park furniture for a casual outdoor meal, and a rest room. Outside of beach season, visitors might forget they're, in essence, playing in traffic. If you need to stop to stretch your legs or walk the dog, there are a lot worse places to do it.

We stopped to visit the holly on a recent frigid day and were impressed by its 60 foot height and broad girth. From a good hug, I'd say that the trunk is about eight feet in circumference, far broader than any of the hollies we've seen at Sandy Hook. He (we didn't see berries so we assume it's not female) appears to have been pruned judiciously over the years, and according to an article in the Lower Township Gazette, Parkway arborists have been providing the necessary maintenance to keep the tree healthy. That said, its advancing age has supporters somewhat concerned, as hollies generally deteriorate after about 300 years. To further preserve the Shoemaker, the Parkway has stopped the long-time custom of festooning it with lights during the Christmas season.

The Shoemaker Holly was flooded in light every night of New Jersey's 300th anniversary celebration, but I've heard no similar plans for this year's 350th. Still, though, it wouldn't hurt to drop by and give 'em a little love. At the very least, take a break from your Cape May trip to admire one of New Jersey's oldest and most durable citizens.


  1. But... the restroom is perpetually closed. Oh, well... that's not why you stop! :)

    1. I'm still mourning the loss of the Roy Rogers at the Oceanview Service Area a few miles down.


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