What’s that in the middle of the official Orange County seal - an orange tree?
How did THAT get there? There aren’t orange trees within 800 miles of here.
“I researched it, and there weren’t even orange trees in Florida back in 1683,” says Johanna Yaun, the Orange County historian.
The county, one of New York’s original 12 counties, was formed in 1683 and named after the Prince of Orange, who eventually became King William III of England.
On a regular basis, Yaun speaks to elementary school students about the seal and even has them design and color their own seals.
She walks back into her office and lugs out a seal press from the past. It must weigh 50 pounds.
“Back in the 1700s, every county department had a different seal,” she says. “This one is from the treasury department.”
She grabs a piece of paper, inserts it into the press and pushes down on the handle. The resulting imprint is umm... somewhat indistinct.
“The supervisor’s office had a seal, the surrogate’s office had a seal and the treasurer’s office had a seal,” she says. “Orange County had a seal, as well.”
She pushes a piece of paper across the table with a blurry image of the Orange County seal circa 1691. It definitely has some sort of a tree in the middle of it.
“You know kids are geniuses,” she says. “And I was speaking to a group of them at the Coldenham School and one student looked at it and said, ‘That’s not an orange tree, it’s an apple tree.’”
Which makes a lot more sense - but still doesn’t solve the mystery.
“In 1962, County Clerk Albert Gottschalk found a silk flag in a box and put it up in his window,” she says. “It had the county seal with an orange tree in the middle.”
“Mildred Parker Seese, a historian and writer for the Times Herald, saw it and said, ‘Where did that come from?’” Yaun says.
The pair researched and it was thought the flag was from the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
“Apparently every New York state county was asked to send a flag so it could be displayed,” Yaun says. “But we don’t know where that flag is today.”
“Orange County’s seal was made official in 1970,” she says. “That’s when the county charter was changed and that seal with the orange tree was adopted.”
Apparently there were other options available without the orange tree, including a version of a woman milking a cow and another with an eagle. But the orange-tree version won out.
Right afterwards, Seese wrote several articles in the paper asking, “Why an orange tree?”
“And she made a pretty good case against that orange tree,” Yaun says.
Donald Clark, the county historian in 1970, appealed to the public for help and started collecting examples, and a committee – with Mildred Parker Seese onboard - was formed to solve the mystery.
“But the committee hit a dead end and eventually fizzled out,” says Yaun.
The answer, she suggests, may be tied up with the royal houses of the Dutch House of Orange-Nassau or the French Principality of Orange.
Or it may not.
The first Orange County clerk in 1691 was Derick Storm, and in her reporting Seese calls him a Dutchman and surmises that he would have known of the orange tree being used as a symbol of the Dutch royal family at the time.
She also assumes Storm created that first image.
“But it’s also very possible that Storm drew an apple tree and it was so blurry it got changed to an orange tree at some point,” Yaun says.
“It’s been a topic of conversation since at least 1962.”
“Lou Heimbach, when he was county executive, attempted to have it changed to an oak leaf back in the 1980s,” she says. “That was certainly a better idea, but it didn’t happen, either.”
And apparently there is good reason for that.
“Turns out the official seal can’t be changed by the county executive or the county legislature,” Yaun says.
“It can only be changed by a group of judges and by judicial decree.”
So the orange tree remains smack-dab in the center of the Orange County seal.
John DeSanto is a freelance photojournalist. Find more of his 845LIFE stories, photos and videos at recordonline.com. Reach John email@example.com