In New Hampshire, Arbor Day is celebrated on the last Friday of April. The idea for a celebration began many years ago in a Spanish fishing village in 1805 when a local priest, realizing the importance of trees “… for health, hygiene, decoration, nature, environment and customs, decided to plant trees …” in a festival atmosphere that lasted over three days. Here in the United States, Julius Sterling Morton founded Arbor Day in 1872 in Nebraska City, Nebraska; an estimated one million trees were planted.
Here at KUA, as in 1910 when seniors welcomed the innovative idea of protecting and caring for the birds of Meriden, seniors made Arbor Day a part of their gift to the community by adopting a “class tree” from the forest and transplanting it onto campus land.
Although it had become a tradition earlier, the first written record of a class tree is in the May 1893 issue of The Kimball Union, where the editor reported the following rather somber thoughts of Arbor Day: “On the 10th, that traditional class tree was planted by the seniors on the most conspicuous part of the school grounds, presumably for the purpose of keeping themselves before the eyes of the other students. This is a rather unique way of perpetuating the dead, we must say, that is, if they are not all Washingtons and Longfellows, whose names and characters will not live for centuries by being transmitted from father to son, as household words. THE UNION hopes to see a monument of each one of the class, more lasting and more durable than that of a simple tree, wreathed in garlands of truth and honor, instead of cubid smoke.”
The following May, with a little more humor, the newspaper reported, “With gentle and loving hands they planted, as an emblem of their sweetness, a maple tree; and in the evening twilight they sat under its scanty leaves smoking the peace-pipe. Then many of the young ladies contrived to cover themselves with smoke; have a slight attack of the whooping cough; burn their fingers with matches, and in the midst of the confusion, exclaim, ‘How delightfully awful this is.’”
By May 1897, there is only a brief mention of the class tree. “On May 3 the Seniors planted their class tree. It is a maple, and adds one more to the line of young maples recently planted by classes on the north side of the road in front of Dexter Richards Hall.”
Six years later in 1903 when E.E. Just, who later became an internationally-recognized stem cell biologist, was editor-in-chief of The Kimball Union, an article under Editorials called On the Going of the Seniors, gave more weighty thoughts to the class tree. We can only assume that E. E. Just, as editor, wrote the article as no name accompanies it. The class, he states, held their Arbor Day exercises near the same time that people around the world observed the centennial of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s birth. “These facts, seemingly different, are significant – why do we plant the tree, what thought does the memory of Emerson bring us?” Here in New Hampshire, he wrote, there is much talk of the preservation of the forests and yet they were disappearing. “The axe of civilization has destroyed the primeval American woodlands. … Cities must stand where once was woodland, and though civilization demands the destruction of the beautiful, yet the love of beauty remains. … These trees which we love, Emerson loved, indeed, he was a worshiper at Nature’s shrine.” But, at the end, he finds hope. “We all know the strain of the conventional Arbor Day speech: May this tree be an emblem of the class; may the class grow as this tree in beauty, strength, and usefulness. This is the point: when we think of the planting of a tree on Arbor Day, we are filled with joy because of the usefulness, the beauty of the act; when we think of Emerson we feel that a stalwart tree has been removed from the world’s great forest. … Up here on this hill with its rich history, traditions, and ideals we have labored. We are about to leave this high place for the world. … Whatever our sphere, however humble it may be, a true purpose, the power to will and a strong heart must conquer. Success comes from purity of ideals; success is decision, determination – vincit qui vult.”
In June 1904, the new editor wrote more simply, “A few weeks ago, on Arbor Day, we planted our class tree. It had obtained a normal growth in the forest and now is transplanted to grow, to spread its branches, and to shade the student in future years. So have we obtained our early growth at K.U.A., but now we go out to learn, to accumulate, and to attain whatever success we can. Our course here is ended. We cannot start anew any more than the tree can go back to its friends in the forest. We must go ahead … .” In this same issue, we find the first mention of seniors’ “Planting of the Ivy,” as part of Commencement Week; it takes place at the stone church and includes an Ivy Oration.
Two years later in June, Emma Augusta Bailly‘s Ivy Address is printed in The Kimball Union. “Custom is an arbitrary master who always demands compliance with his wish and will. It has been the custom every year for the Seniors to plant a sprig of ivy around the Church or Academy. It is not with displeasure, therefore, that we, the Class of 1906, follow the beaten path which the past has provided.” Bailly then tells the story of the Garden of Eden and the sprig of ivy who saw a creeping snake but was too terrorized to warn Eve. When Eve left the garden, the ivy cried out to be taken with her; Eve “snatched the ivy from its beautiful home and bore it out into a home of stones and weeds.” The ivy was not happy so Eve “ordained that all ivy should thereafter grow upwards and twine around the noblest works of man. …” She tells of its journey to the great academic institutions such as Oxford University and its eventual arrival here in Meriden. “From these far-off hallowed surrounds comes this sprig which we, the Class of 1906 today are planting at the foundations of our beloved Academy. … The growth of the vine and the spread of its leaves and tendrils suggest the enlarged mind and the enriched character that comes from a liberal education. The lasting freshness and brightness of its leaves admonish us to keep ever fresh in memory thoughts of our school and our debt to her. As we today put this little plant into a ground far from its native soil, let us remember that we too shall soon be planting our feet on alien soil, amid strange surroundings. Let us not be content to creep along the ground satisfied with the meaner things of earth, but turn our faces upwards; and, with strong, noble ideals above us, twine around the tower of our lives the delicate tendrils of understanding … .”
By 1907, less is written, but it is noted that seniors planted their tree on May 8 and the program also included two senior essays, an address by Principal Tracy, a duet with piano and violin, the class history, a poem Our Tree and “burial of class records” – whatever that could mean, I don’t know. Each senior threw a shovelful of dirt on the tree and later, it is recorded, seniors were seen resting under the growing trees of earlier classes.
These class trees are mostly gone now through age, disease or felled by the Great Hurricane of 1938, but others have replaced them either as living memorials to family and friends or just to add nature’s beauty to the Hilltop. This year, when the leaves appear on the trees and the ivy clings to the Academy and church walls, it will be sweet to stop and think of the seniors of long-ago and their parting gifts to the Hilltop. At the same time, we also enjoy the new Memorial Grove on the Quad and all the beautiful trees and shrubs planted around campus by a new generation of the KUA family.