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A Trunk Full of Memories

  • Author:
    Catherine Ferland
  • Published:
    Fall 2016

Centuries before we began singing about the banks of the Red Cedar, they sat unseen, surrounded by a dense forest. As the university sprang up starting in 1855, one by one, the massive trees were taken down. Only a few treasured trees from before 1855 remained, their true ages unknown.  


But after a severe thunderstorm this past July, a plant biology professor found an astonishing MSU relic among the damage: a downed tree that is estimated to be more than 350 years old.

“If only this tree could talk,” wrote Frank Telewski, a professor and curator of the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboreutm, in a personal essay about the experience. “It was growing here when Native Americans walked this land. It survived the clearing of the land for our campus, witnessed the construction of College Hall and Saint’s Rest. It survived the fire, which destroyed Saints Rest and paid witness to every Spartan ever on campus.”


After the storm, he reported the fallen old white oak next to Linton Hall and paused when he saw the remains of a sheet metal cap on the tree. He immediately knew that this tree had been standing since at least the birth of the university.


Telewski attributed the old cap to the workers who first cleared the land in the 1850s. It was common practice to cut the tops of trees and place a metal cap on them, hopefully forcing them to grow out, rather than up. This caused the center of the tree to rot, rendering it defenseless against the storm’s 65 mph winds.


Interested in finding out the true age of the tree, Telewski collected samples and counted the rings. All 347 of them.


“It may well have germinated in the original forest long before settlers cleared the land for the campus, very likely in the early to mid-1600s,” he wrote.


This old white oak not only survived being capped in 1850, but also survived the damaging thunderstorm. A small section of the tree still remains intact. Telewski and the rest of the campus arborists are hopeful that it will produce acorns, enabling a second generation.


“This is one of the many reasons we need to protect our campus trees,” Telewski wrote. “These trees can be older than any of us and if we and subsequent generations of Spartans continue to provide these trees and the trees we plant every year with respect and care, 300- to 400-year-old trees should never be unusual for future Spartans and MSU’s campus.”


The remains of the fallen tree will likely be donated to the MSU Shadows Collection, a program that turns fallen MSU trees into furniture and mementos.