The Legend of the Balm of Gilead Tree

His name was Thomas Redway. He headed west from Connecticut with his family, driving a team of oxen and herding a flock of sheep with a staff cut from a tree.

Stories from early settlers say that when he reached what is now the southwestern part of Onondaga County in the State of New York, he found a hillside area above a small wooded lake.  He said, “Here will be my home” and stuck the staff into the ground.

Family history says Thomas settled on the site in 1806 and built a one-room log cabin where he lived with his family. The cabin was eventually replaced with a larger house, and the house that sits on the property today was built sometime around 1867.

The staff that he stuck in the ground sprouted, sending out roots and leaves, growing for 173 years. I don’t know how big it was when it finally fell, but in 1937 it measured 23 feet in circumference waist high, and 27 feet just above the ground.

It stood well over the farmhouse that my dad grew up in, fifth generation to live on Thomas Redway’s homestead.

My family has numerous photos going back three generations of Thomas’s descendants standing in front of the enormous tree. The photos below are of my grandmother taken around 1937, when a Syracuse Newspaper published a story about the tree.




Here are pictures of the tree towering over the house.



The tree finally fell September 14, 1979, taking a part of my family history with it.


My brother, my dad and my son



© Drusilla Mott and, 2014


I googled my grandfather’s name a while back and found this article at written in February by Laurel Auchampaugh, the Owasco, NY historian.  Ms. Auchampaugh has kindly given her permission for me to share it with all of you.

The story speaks of my grandfather’s faith and God’s lovingkindness for his children.

It is entitled “A Winter’s Walk With A Friend”:

The bitter cold we experienced this past month reminded me of a story about Owasco Road told by a supply minister many years ago. He was conducting the services at the Methodist church in Owasco village, later to become Porter’s Garage.

The Rev. Eugene Cecil Olcott often recounted about a winter’s walk he took in the cold and dark along East Lake Road in his sermons.

I believe this is a college portrait.

The walk took place early in the depression and tough economic times were felt by everyone.

The lesson he tried to impart to the expectant congregation seeking some solace and support was, “you are never alone.” He spoke of the walk, the loneliness he felt and the isolation that followed, including loss of direction, intensified by the bitter cold weather. All of this added to a profound test of his endurance and faith.

This is the story he told:

He had finished the evening service at the church and began walking along East Lake Road.

It was imperative to get to the foot of the lake before the last run of the trolley by the Syracuse Electric Car Co. that would take him home to Marcellus. I do not understand why arrangements were not made for his transport.

After he passed the span of houses on the main road and the comfort from the wind they provided, he soon encountered the sparse farmhouses and large fields between them.

The snow was blowing and drifting hard, filling in the road. He was now walking in snow up to his thighs. It was dark, and visibility in the wind, and the drifting, blowing snow, was difficult.

The only way he could determine he was still on the road was, while passing the farms, he could see the lights inside the homes. The stretch from Burtis Point to Swarthout Road was especially trying for him.

The cottages along the lake were closed for the winter, and as he trudged along, pressing ever forward, he was feeling very alone.

He told how he looked longingly at the lights up ahead of a distant farmhouse on the left side of the road, and thought of the warmth and comfort of the family within (this is the Trice home now, formerly Ross Pierson’s back to the Burnett family in 1800).

Suddenly in the dark, he felt the brush of something against his side. He felt thick fur with his gloved hand and the insistent nuzzle and push in his palm of a big sheepdog!

Olcott would laugh as he told of the delight he felt with his canine companion. He said the dog walked with him pressed against his side as if to steady and aid him until they got to Willowbrook down the hill.

The dog would then leave him and retrace his way back up the hill and home.

In the subsequent Sundays that followed, Olcott would see his friend in the early morning waiting for him in the road when he returned to Owasco to preach. And how he would greet him excitedly, and walk with him to Willowbrook each evening on the return trip.

Roy Gallinger, who used to own and edit The Marcellus Observer, was a friend of Cecil Olcott before he became a minister.

He recalled in a Observer article how he “was a brilliant musician who played the cornet” and how they both used to play in a band in Syracuse.

Grampa is in the center behind the drum.

He also told it was not unusual for them to walk from Bellevue Heights in Syracuse down to band practice several miles downtown.

He became the beloved minister of the Marietta United Church and served there for many years.

A Dec. 3, 1959 Thanksgiving family celebration found them hosting three sons, three daughters and 28 grandchildren for the holiday. Olcott and his wife, Hazel, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on April 29, 1967.

My dad's dad, Carlyle Henderson; Eugene Cecil Olcott; Hazel Olcott (my mom's parents); and my dad's mom, Ruth Henderson. This is Grampa & Gramma Olcott's 50th anniversay.

I cannot travel East Lake Road in winter without thinking of the footprint of history he left with his record of that long-ago walk in the cold.

How the times have changed!

The Cayuga County and Owasco highway departments keep the roads clear; the utility poles light the way for the many cars and trucks that travel what is called Owasco Road, East Lake Road or Route 38A today.

Olcott and the Methodist church in the village are gone now, the Presbyterian church also. Willowbrook, including the sprawling upper and lower houses, have vanished, too.

Yet the old farmhouses, with new families, including devoted family pets, surrounded by ancient farm fields, are still here.


The pictures are my own.

© Drusilla Mott and, 2011