Trees of New Bedford: Get to know the Arnold Oak

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In 1821, James Arnold and his wife, Sarah Rotch Arnold, built a simple Federal-style house on 11 acres in New Bedford. They also created an extensive garden, which they opened to the city on Sundays.

In addition to being a respected and successful merchant and a co-founder of the New Bedford Horticultural Society, James and his family were dedicated to landscape, horticulture and public good.

We know that house and its grounds today as the James Arnold Mansion at 427 County St., long-time home to the Wamsutta Club.

Three mighty Black Oak trees from the garden planted by the Arnolds survived into the 21st century. During much needed tree maintenance last year, two of those elderly oaks with poor upper trunk health were removed.

The third oak, initially proposed for removal, was later determined to be in good condition. Healthy, majestic, and one of the tallest trees on the property, it was properly pruned, cared for and thus given the promise of a longer life.

It has been named the James and Sarah Arnold Oak.

Welcome to the first edition of Trees of New Bedford. This monthly series will feature a different tree once a month in The Standard-Times. It is brought to you by Out on a Limb, a group dedicated to raising awareness about the environmental significance, botanical beauty, heritage, and maintenance needs of New Bedford’s public and private tree population.

This story by Steven Froias originally appeared in the Standard-Times on 04/26/2019 – it can be seen HERE

The group meets regularly at the Arnold Mansion, and due to its significance in the city’s history, it is only fitting that the first tree profiled in the series is the James and Sarah Arnold Oak. It’s also fitting that the column launch is timed to appear the Sunday before Arbor Day, which is on April 26.

The mission of the current owner of the property, James Arnold Mansion Inc., is to preserve, restore, and maintain the mansion and its grounds for the public’s enjoyment; to educate the public about the history of the mansion, the Arnold family and their role in the history of New Bedford and Massachusetts; and, to invite the public to explore that history, culture, landscape, architecture, the arts, and more through educational programming, exhibits, performances and other public activities.

When Sarah and then James died, each left a bequest to the city for the long-term benefit of the poor, which continues and is administered by Community Foundation of Southeastern Massachusetts. And, when James died, he left separate funds to advance the study of horticulture that were later combined with land previously left to Harvard University and which together became the world-famous Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain.

The James Arnold Mansion Board and Out on a Limb regard the historic garden at the Arnold Mansion as Arnold Arboretum No.1. While today the grounds only encompass three acres as opposed to the Arnolds’ 11, and close to 30 trees remain on the grounds, many other Arnold trees are still alive on properties now belonging to other neighbors.

And so, the utmost care is being poured into those three acres and its remaining on-site tree collection – as befits the attention the Arnolds showered over their 11-acre garden. And plans for the rehabilitation and restoration of the remaining grounds are in the works.

References to the beauty of the Arnold garden abound in letters and literature of the time. A listing compiled by historian Peggi Medeiros contains the following:

The James Arnold Mansion is specifically referenced in Safely Moored at Last: Cultural Landscape Report for New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

The report notes, “The large brick mansion of James Arnold, son-in-law of and partner of William Rotch, Jr., graced the crossroads’ southwest corner. Arnold’s 11-acre estate landscaped with many exotic trees and shrubs he had gathered during his travels, was the horticultural showplace of New Bedford. His formal gardens, which welcomed public promenading every Sunday, no doubt contributed to the citizenry’s reputation for ‘tree loving propensities’ and New Bedford’s renown.”

In the Diary of Charles Francis Adams, he describes a September 1835 visit to New Bedford with his father, former President John Quincy Adams.

Adams wrote, ”…We went on to Mr. Arnold’s where we stopped. He took us over his garden, which has been laid out with great taste. The presence of a female with taste is perceptible in it.”

Andrew Jackson Downing, perhaps the single greatest influence on gardens and appropriate houses in the 19th century, included the Arnold garden in “A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening”:

“In the environs of New Bedford are many beautiful residences. Among these, we desire particularly to notice the residence of James Arnold, Esq. There is scarcely a small place in New England, where the pleasure-grounds are so full of variety, and in such perfect order and keeping, as at this charming spot…”

And finally, although Herman Melville visited the Arnold garden, it is not known if he met the Arnolds himself. His visit is documented in The Melville Log, A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, Volume I, 1819 – 1891.

In the years since these folks visited the City of New Bedford, and the James Arnold Mansion and Garden, much has changed.

Yet the James and Sarah Arnold Oak remains standing to the north of the mansion, a silent sentinel of all these occasions and more.

This story by Steven Froias originally appeared in the Standard-Times on 04/26/2019 – it can be seen HERE