A newcomer to our community would not require much time to discover that the oak tree is the most important symbol of our county seat, Front Royal. On the town’s flag and official seal, the oak tree motif can be seen in the Visitor’s Center on a variety of souvenir items.
Many businesses have also appropriated this symbol in their names. The curious at heart inevitably find themselves asking, then, from whence this symbol has come, as there do not seem to be a preponderance of oak trees in our nook of Virginia in comparison to neighboring communities. The oak tree as Front Royal’s symbol has a number of reputed roots, none of which can be substantiated as the sole reason, but all of which together make for an important part of Front Royal’s lore and identity.
The first legend concerning an oak tree and Front Royal comes from the colonial era of the town’s settlement, when Front Royal was known as LeHewtown. During the 1760s – following the French & Indian War and prior to the Revolution – the town held militia practice for the local volunteer unit. It was during these drills, which in almost all communities took place on central common green spaces in towns, that the drill master reputedly grew impatient with his young charges who seemed incapable of following the simplest of commands, such as “Right face!” The result was that the officer barked the command “Front the Royal Oak!” whenever he wanted his men to collectively face the same direction – presumably towards a large oak tree – and hence not only did the oak tree become a symbol of the town but a legend was born concerning the town’s name.
The second piece of local lore concerning an oak tree and Front Royal stems from the purported presence of an extremely large oak tree in town which lent the place an easily recognizable landmark. This particular story has led over the years to the identifying of multiple old oak trees that were said to have been “the” oak tree in question, and in the Warren Heritage Society’s Ivy Lodge Museum is displayed a large “tree cookie,” the term for a cross section of tree cut so one can view the growth rings, that is from a tree known as The Royal Oak. On loan from Ron and Corinne Llewellyn, this massive tree cookie was cut from a limb of an old oak tree which was felled by high winds on the property – Rose Hill – in the 1990s. It is from a tree that is at least 350 years old, and so qualifies in age alone to have been Front Royal’s famous oak.
These first two stories may each be true or at least contain some truth, but there are other reasons tied to the politics and culture of 18 th Century Front Royal that also help explain the use of the oak tree as a symbol of the town. The oak, now but especially in the 1700s and 1800s, is a very positive symbol in Western culture. The tree stands for strength, as in the expression “mighty as an oak,” and durability. Oaks can grow to immense sizes and have been seen as sources for shelter. Oak as a wood has always been highly valued for its quality. As a result, the oak tree as a symbol of the town likely made sense to those who began the town’s positive association with this particular tree. In addition, the oak tree is a symbol of royalty, and has often been used specifically as a symbol of British nobility. Front Royal, so named because of its location on the royal frontier of the British Empire in the 1700s, would naturally acquire other symbols associating it with British rule.
Three exist in town, and they are worth visiting to regain a sense of the pride once taken in this moving symbol by the early inhabitants of the area. The Constitution Oak, planted in commemoration of our nation’s independence and drafting of a constitution, can be seen behind the Warren County Government Center on the east side of Warren Avenue near the Post Office. The second symbolic oak is planted on the southeast corner of the intersection of Peyton and Crescent Streets. The third oak planted in celebration of the tree’s symbolic significance is the “Millennium Oak,” located near the intersection of Commerce Avenue and Prospect Street. Planted in 2000 by the Front Royal/Warren County Tree Stewards, the "Millennium Oak" commemorates the Town of Front Royal's designation as part of the Tree City USA program, and a marker is placed at the site. An oak was chosen because of the tradition of oaks in Front Royal's history.
All three of these trees many years from now will help continue to remind our descendants of an important identifier of our community.
For more information on the history of Front Royal and Warren County, contact the Warren Heritage Society at (540) 636-1446, or visit their website at www.warrenheritagesociety.org.