Editor's Note: With the coming of the Middle Path restoration project and removal of distressed and dying trees, Tom Stamp ’73, College historian and keeper of Kenyoniana, took a moment to reflect on the changes afoot and the College’s abiding affinity for its trees.
Kenyon’s history offers many connections to trees, beginning with those on founder Philander Chase’s farm in Worthington, Ohio. Before deciding that his new college needed to be removed from what he judged to be the “vice and dissipation of urban life,” Chase planned to build on his farm, one of the chief advantages of which, to his mind, was the shelter provided by the large number of old and shady trees.
A reflection on Kenyon and its trees comes at a time when distressed trees have been removed from Middle Path to allow for its restoration with stabilized gravel and better drainage to improve universal access and ultimately preserve its beauty.
A Founder's Proclamation
Perhaps the best known of the tree connections, however, involves Chase’s initial sight of the property that would become the College campus. According to several sources, Chase first investigated the wooded hill on Sunday, July 24, 1825, in the company of Henry Curtis (whose wife’s uncle owned the property) after Chase had preached to Curtis and his fellow parishioners at Mount Vernon’s newly formed Episcopal church, the one we now know as St. Paul’s. Chase and Curtis tied their horses at the bottom of the hill – contrary to the content of the otherwise worthy mural by Kenyon professor Norris Rahming in the Gambier Post Office. They made their way through thick undergrowth to the summit. There, Chase was able to stand on the trunk of a fallen tree, one of many that had been knocked down sometime earlier by a windstorm, and see the long, relatively flat plain at the top of the hill. After barely a moment’s hesitation, he made the famous declaration, “This will do.”
After purchasing the land from Elizabeth Hogg Curtis’s uncle, William Hogg, Chase and his students began clearing the land of both fallen and standing trees. The song “Philander Chase,” a ditty with words by College historian George Franklin Smythe that’s known to every Kenyon man and woman, informs us that, among other labors, the founder “dug up stones, he chopped down trees” and then repeats “chopped down trees” for emphasis.
Some of the logs obtained from these labors – labors illustrated in a panel of the Brooke Memorial Windows in the Church of the Holy Spirit – were used to construct Kenyon’s first temporary buildings, which stood near the “Wedding Tree” on what is now the front lawn of the Church of the Holy Spirit. Other logs were milled into lumber for use in the many other campus and village structures built in those early years. Chase, in fact, lost no time in building both grain and lumber mills on the College property, stopping only to ban the consumption of whiskey and convert a rudimentary still into a laundry before setting up operations.
The campus and village Chase left behind when he departed Gambier in 1831 were virtually denuded of trees along their central spine. Although Middle Path was still more than a decade in the future, Chase’s “boulevards” (the present-day Chase and Gaskin avenues) were already in place in the village center and ran northward from Wiggin Street to points beyond the village boundaries.
The Birth of Middle Path
When David Bates Douglass arrived in Gambier in 1841 as the College’s third president, he found a campus that was far from beautiful. Two handsome buildings had been erected – Old Kenyon and Rosse – but neither was in good repair. Furthermore, the grounds were in a state of disarray, with piles of discarded building materials scattered about, untidy woodpiles adjacent to College buildings and faculty members’ homes, and livestock ranging freely throughout the area. The last of these was especially problematic, because every effort at beautifying the campus by planting bushes or trees had been thwarted by what historian Smythe colorfully labeled “the investigating snouts of roving swine.”
Douglass first tackled these problems before setting to work on the project for which he would be best remembered, Middle Path. Although Chase’s plan had called for extending the two parallel boulevards south to Old Kenyon, Douglass determined that a single footpath would be sufficient, with sidetracks for carriages, wagons, and horses, all of which would not be permitted on the path. He also saw that such a path would have the benefit of easy extendibility as the campus grew northward from Wiggin Street, Middle Path’s original northern terminus.
Middle Path, whose first section was completed in 1842, was a minor marvel. Its base was excavated to a depth of two feet, creating a wide trench that was filled with rough rock followed by courses of large and small gravel that were quickly compacted by daily traffic. A rudimentary system of drains running to buried cisterns, along with the relative porousness of the construction, kept the path dry in all but the foulest weather.
But Middle Path was not beautiful. As Smythe notes in his Kenyon College: Its First Century, “there was not a tree near it.” To address the problem, Douglass decreed that trees should be planted along its length, although this was not accomplished for several years. Under the direction of Professor of Mathematics Edward Coke Ross, the trees, identified as “hard maples,” were planted by students, some of whom had participated in the building of the path itself. In all likelihood, this was the first concerted – and successful – tree-planting exercise in Kenyon’s history.
Life Among the Trees
The northern section of the path, from Wiggin Street to Bexley Hall (then the home of the seminary), was not constructed until 1860. Under the direction of Gregory Thurston Bedell, the third Episcopal bishop of Ohio, this extension appears to have been built according to the same basic plans as the original section, but with perhaps less attention to the details of depth and materials insisted upon by Douglass, trained as a civil engineer.
While we have scant photographic evidence of the first decades of the original section of Middle Path, numerous images of the northern extension in its early years exist. Bedell also funded the planting of trees along this portion – trees we can see in various stages of growth over their first decades of life in photographs. Apparently, the trees, all of the same unknown variety (perhaps ash or hackberry), grew to be medium-sized with oval or vase-shaped forms.
Over the years, trees along Middle Path have come and gone. Old age has taken some, disease (including widespread blights) has taken others, while still more have been felled by high winds, ice storms, and other extremes of weather. Throughout, Kenyon has made consistent efforts to keep the shade that sequesters the walkway intact, although those efforts have sometimes seemed to be guided by a “trial and error” approach to the selection of appropriate tree varieties.
Hearkening to the frugal ways of Philander Chase, the College has also made efforts to salvage wood from fallen trees along the path and those taken down for construction or for other reasons. Wood from once-majestic campus oaks has found its way into replacement doors for Peirce Hall, bookcases and cabinets in faculty offices, and podiums in lecture halls. Lumber from an old beech tree removed in the mid-1980s to make way for Olin Library – an action that became the subject of an all-campus meeting – was used by master carpenter Jack Esslinger to construct handsome benches for the old Olin Gallery.
Kenyon employees and students and Gambier residents and visitors regularly express their admiration and love for the trees that distinguish both the campus and the village. And that love has sometimes led to confrontations between those who would build and those who would preserve. In 1970, students protested plans to construct a third dormitory on the Coordinate College campus that would have entailed the destruction of several massive oaks, resulting in revised plans calling for a more narrow-based but taller Caples Residence. More recently, a number of community members upset by Kenyon’s plans to remove several large old trees for the construction of the Gund Gallery organized a petition drive, while others took the opportunity to make a case for protecting and enhancing the woodlands that line the sides of Gambier Hill. In large part to address their concerns, and in still larger part to continue being good stewards of the College’s land, Kenyon has adopted a policy of planting two trees for every one removed or lost to natural causes.
Modern Middle Path
One of the most difficult issues has consistently been that of the trees along the path’s northern portion, a topic faced first by the campus committee that examined how best to address various issues related to Middle Path’s accessibility and its long-term survival, and then by the Kenyon College Board of Trustees and the Gambier Planning and Zoning Commission. The trees were determined by arborists to be diseased, dying, or damaged by the harsh conditions, ranging from exposure to salt and other chemicals to poor drainage, resulting from their roadside locations. The decision to remove them all at the same time was not an easy one for any of those involved, but it did take into consideration the alternatives – allowing the trees to die and fall naturally (a potentially dangerous proposition) or taking them down one or two at a time – while looking for the best possible solution for the path’s future health and well-being.
Many people in the village were shocked and dismayed the day the first of the trees came down. A couple of days later, with the trees gone, we were all getting a glimpse of Middle Path circa 1860, before the first trees were planted there. In the spring of 2015, we’ll see the new trees take their places, alongside curbs put in this fall that will help to protect them from the ravages of road grime and a newly rebuilt path, one with a more permeable and user-friendly surface that still provides that satisfying crunch of gravel beneath our feet.
Meanwhile, the remains of the old trees will be transformed into mulch, some of which may nourish their successors along Middle Path.
Gambier has been an official “Tree City” since 2007. Ever since, Kenyon has been named one of – or the – most beautiful of all college and university campuses, both in the United States and abroad. Neither wants to lose its status. Could the village do more to monitor the health and safety of the trees in its domain? The answer is clearly yes, and Mayor Kirk Emmert has promised it will become a priority. Could the College use the services of a full-time arborist to see to the welfare of our campus trees? Again, I think almost any informed person would say yes. If we really want to preserve the best of our campus and our village, lobbying for these changes may be among the most helpful ways in which to direct our energies.
By Tom Stamp ’73, College historian and keeper of Kenyoniana