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The University of North Carolina Campus: Natural Environment and Landscaping (1792-1877)
William R. Burk
Librarian, John N. Couch Biology Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


The natural environment and landscaping of the University of North Carolina's grounds have played an important role in the life of the institution since its founders selected New Hope Chapel Hill as the seat of the campus in 1792. The region is situated on a range of granitic hills from which a vast plain extends to the coast. According to tradition, several trustees — including William Richardson Davie — rested under the shade of a tulip poplar (the Davie Poplar, still living and honored as a symbol of the University) and chose the spot for the college. In reality, eight trustees were charged to inspect sites for the campus, and they ultimately recommended New Hope Chapel Hill to the full body of trustees. The site's central location in the state, its accessibility by roads, and the donation of land by local landowners were decisive factors for the selection. Nature had also endowed the region with unrivalled beauty, captivating flora and fauna, and a healthful environment. Writing about the University in a newspaper article, historian and former Governor of Maine William Durkee Williamson particularly mentioned "the purity of the water, the salubrity of the air, and the great healthfulness of the climate."1
The campus, frequently called the Grove2 or ornamental grounds, consisted of almost one hundred acres. It was bounded by land that would soon be divided into village lots to the north, northeast and northwest, and by mostly forested areas on the remaining sides. Grand oaks predominated and other trees such as hickories, poplars, pines, red maples, persimmons, black gums, dogwoods, and sourwoods were interspersed. The picturesque setting had an inspiring and lasting effect on students, faculty, and visitors, instilling genuine respect and lifelong memories. The reminiscences and reflections of students and others are preserved in the University's archival records. A former student, who attended the University in the 1830s, recalled each tree as he walked through the grounds about twenty years later. Some of the oaks had been replaced by the more rapidly growing elms.3 In writing an editorial for a University magazine, a student from the mid-1850s exalted the Grove as "a retreat of the Muses." This forward-thinking student was also concerned about the conservation of the campus trees, noting that old dying specimens should be replaced with young ones.4 Local residents were likewise concerned about the protection and preservation of the trees. North Carolina writer and historian Cornelia Phillips Spencer expressed her dismay whenever trees were felled or succumbed to natural causes such as disease and lightning.5
The campus and surrounding land provided habitats for a number of animals. Particularly common were deer, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, raccoons, wild turkeys, quail, and a variety of song birds. While making a religious trip through North Carolina in 1851 and 1852, Quaker Mary Kite wrote about her stop in Chapel Hill. By the wayside, she observed a group of students with a deer lying near by them. She saw a variety of birds, including the titmouse and the eastern wood-pewee (cited as "Pewee") and recognized the calls of a number of others, including the Carolina wren.6 Passenger pigeons were abundant during their migration, and large flocks of them would darken the skies as they flew overhead. Writing in his diary on 18 February 1858, sophomore Henry Francis Jones noted: "I never saw the like of pigeons in my life as has been passing over here to day. Immense droves ha[ve] been going over all day. Good many of the students ha[ve] been shooting them all day."7 Hunting the campus wildlife was a popular sport for the students, until university officials banned the practice in late 1876.8
Besides the noteworthy flora and fauna, another natural asset of the campus was the water, reputed to be cold, pure, and delicious. Springs abounded, particularly on the hillsides. According to Cornelia Spencer , Professor Elisha Mitchell asserted that the campus well, just north of South Building , had water second to none in the region.9
The care and improvement of the campus grounds were not neglected by University leaders. Efforts first entailed the maintenance of the grounds and in later years their beautification through plantings and the construction of rock walls. Soon after the institution first opened its doors to students in 1795, builder James Patterson was engaged to clean up debris remaining from construction and to fill up holes in the ground on campus.10 A decade later, the trustees instructed John Taylor , the steward, to employ someone to trim trees and to remove unsightly brush in the Grove and areas around the buildings.11 At the close of 1810, the trustees established the post of "Superintendant [sic] of the buildings and lands of the University" and appointed John Taylor .12 In the ensuing years, several men held the post, which was modified to include financial responsibilities in 1827. Two years later, the trustees directed that the faculty fill it from one or more of their own. The faculty at first divided the duties of the job among several of their members, and it was the versatile professor Elisha Mitchell who took responsibility for the buildings and grounds. Later Mitchell would assume all the duties of the Superintendency.
Under Mitchell's direction and with University President David L. Swain's keen support, work commenced in 1838 to enclose the campus proper with rock walls to replace the rail fences on its perimeter. Following a technique already well known in New England, of not using mortar or other cementing material, Mitchell's workers, probably slaves whom he owned or hired from other slaveholders, stacked and interlocked rocks into place. In June 1841, a reporter for the newspaper Raleigh Register noted that "the 'campus',—or grounds immediately adjoining the buildings—would soon be enclosed with a neat and substantial stone wall."13 Much of the campus had been enclosed by 1844, and Mitchell received $500 as compensation for his work and supervision. An additional section (40 rods, approximately 660 feet) of new wall was completed by 1852 under the direction of Captain John Brooks Tenny, an Orange County, North Carolina farmer.14
These stone fences served several functions for the University landscape. From a practical perspective, the stone fences were supposed to keep out the village livestock (cows and pigs) that freely roamed the region, according to the common custom of the times. In his history of the University, President Kemp P. Battle regarded this free-range grazing as "evil."15 Even after the walls were completed, however, the trustees continued to deal with the livestock pasturing on the grounds.16 Aesthetically, the walls enhanced the picturesque setting of the campus. Soon the villagers adopted the practice of erecting similar fences around their yards. With age, the rock fences took on a special character as mosses, lichens, and the elements softened their ruggedness. Having been repaired and filled in with mortar, some of the walls survive. They continue to be a signature feature of the University campus.
The construction of the rock fences ushered in the beautification and improvement of the grounds that would prosper and flourish through the late 1850s. By June 1841, an anonymous observer was impressed with the changes, writing: "Trees have been set out in various parts of the College area, and the venerable old grove has been so grubbed and trimmed and thinned, as to lose much of its rude forest garb, while increased vigor has been given to the growth that remains."17 In early 1844, noted architect Alexander Jackson Davis was a guest at a meeting of the trustees where he presented his plans for landscaping the campus. He proposed a "Botanic Garden"18 on the site of the present arboretum, but this proposal came to naught. Efforts to hire a landscape gardener began in 1845. Nearly two years lapsed until the position was filled with John Loader . The trustees allotted $1,000 annually for landscaping: $400 for Loader's salary; and $600 for other expenses, such as wages of workers, purchases of plants and shrubs, and the use of horse and wagon. Loader established a nursery in the rear of the campus proper. There, a stock of plants and shrubs was grown for subsequent transplanting to the campus grounds. When Loader resigned at the end of 1851, Thomas Paxton became his successor. Both men trained a number of slave workers who learned horticultural skills and transferred plants onto the campus.
Historian and Professor of Mathematics Archibald Henderson commented on several landscape improvements that had been made. In the southern half of campus, there was some trimming of trees, removal of underbrush, and the creation of pathways. In the northern half, where the main focus of landscaping endeavors took place, plantings included rose hedges, mock-orange, osage orange, and hollies. Rose bushes and ornamental shrubs adorned the sides of two gravel walks (one from Old East ; one from Old West ) that extended to Franklin Street.19 There were a number of plantings of the flowering quince, a shrub then in vogue and celebrated for its showy red flowers. Ground covers were also used. According to a document in the University's archives, grass seed was purchased for this purpose as well as "oats for the lot in front of the College."20 In 1856, the retiring editors of the student publication North Carolina University Magazine proclaimed the campus "to be the prettiest college campus in the Union."21
The deprivations caused by the "War between the States" initiated a decline of the Grove that was further hastened by the suspension of the University from 1868 to 1869 and later by its closure from 1871 to 1875 during Reconstruction. Without routine maintenance, ornamental borders became overgrown with weeds, trees and shrubs went untrimmed, and debris accumulated on the ground. The Grove also suffered from "wood poachers" who sawed and chopped the magnificent oaks.22 In preparation for the re-opening of the University in September 1875, workers began repairing buildings and cleaning up the grounds as early as that March.23 Consider the scene as planter, agricultural reformer, and friend of the University Paul Carrington Cameron described the restoration, which was probably nearing completion later that year:
The outside stone walls surrounding the campus have all been repaired, and new gates put up and all stock have been excluded. The walks of the campus have all been cleaned and reopen'd and all the dead wood of the shrubbery and oak grove have been cut out and removed and the wild growth of briar & stick wood dug up by the roots and carried out. The entire surface cut over by the scythe and under the recent & copious rains present a lawn of green & shade equaled by no educational establishment in the country.24
The campus was donning its cloak of beauty and charm once again. In the summer of 1877, Cornelia Spencer affectionately described the revived landscape of the campus that has captivated people throughout its history:
Here are the groves and gravel-walks, — here the Halls and Libraries, here is the deep shade and the green grass, here is the deliciously cool clear water, and the pure air, here is kindness and welcome, making of acquaintance, renewal of friendship, and general peace and good will.25

Endnotes:

1. W[illiam] D. W[illiamson], "University of North Carolina," Boston Recorder, 14 December 1843.

2. In writing about the botanical endeavors of Elisha Mitchell , Rogers McVaugh, Michael McVaugh, and Mary Ayers define the Grove as the forested area of the University between the college buildings and Franklin Street, not the whole square. See Rogers McVaugh, Michael R. McVaugh, and Mary Ayers, Chapel Hill and Elisha Mitchell the Botanist (Chapel Hill: The Botanical Garden Foundation, 1996), 52, 67.

3. T. L., "A Visit to the University," The North Carolina Magazine 7 (1857): 227-231.

4. "The Campus," North Carolina University Magazine 5 (1856): 378-379.

5. Spencer's concern for the campus trees is revealed in a letter that she wrote to Mrs. Swain (widow of former University President David L. Swain) in August 1877. She reported on the news from Chapel Hill, including a note about the death of a venerable oak that had shaded the college well. When the tree was cut down, Spencer "could not repress a groan." She continued: "It was an old, old friend & had seen how much!". See Cornelia P. Spencer to Mrs. Swain, 27 August 1877, box 3, folder 1874-1880, Personal Collection #7, North Carolina Office of Archives & History, Raleigh.

6. [Mary Kite], "A Visit to North Carolina (concluded)," Friend (Philadelphia) 43 (1869): 42-44.

7. Henry Francis Jones Diary, 1857-1858, Southern Historical Collection #3019-z, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

8. At its 8 November 1876, meeting, the Executive Committee of the University trustees "Resolved, that hunting in the Campus grounds of the University, by day or night, in session or vacation, with gun or dog, net or trap, or otherwise, by any person whatsoever, is forbidden, and the Bursar is directed to give public notice accordingly and to prosecute all offenders against this Ordinance." See Trustee Minutes, Volume 16, p. 29-30.

9. C[ornelia] P. S[pencer], "Our Springs," University Magazine 1(1878): 20-21.

10. "Agreement [between] Judge Williams & James Patterson; Agreement with W. Patterson," [3 March 1795], folder 8, University of North Carolina Papers #40005, University Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

11. Trustee Minutes, Volume 3, p. 81.

12. Trustee Minutes, Volume 3, p. 245-247.

13. "Our University," Raleigh Register and North-Carolina Gazette, 8 June 1841: [3].

14. Trustees of the University of North Carolina, invoice to John B. Tenny, 1 May 1852, folder 181, University of North Carolina Papers #40005, University Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

15. Kemp P. Battle, The History of the University of North Carolina, (1907 and 1912; repr., Spartanburg, SC: Reprint Company, 1974), I:471.

16. At a meeting of 6 June 1860, the trustees discussed the problem of the roaming livestock that used the campus grounds as a pasture. They subsequently passed a resolution "that the Bursar be directed to take the most effectual measures for expelling all stock from said grounds & keeping them away." See Trustee Minutes, Volume 16, p. 273.

17. "Our University."

18. John V. Allcott reproduces Davis's drawing for a Botanic Garden in his book on the University campus. On the south side of the proposed garden were plots meant for experimental agriculture. See John V. Allcott, The Campus at Chapel Hill; Two Hundred Years of Architecture (Chapel Hill: Chapel Hill Historical Society. 1986), 31; fig. 37.

19. Archibald Henderson, The Campus of the First State University, The University of North Carolina Sesquicentennial Publications (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1949), 163-164.

20. "Account of Expenditures for the Improvement of the College Grounds in the Year 1848," folder 174, University of North Carolina Papers #40005, University Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

21. "Local Items," North-Carolina University Magazine 5 (1856): 236-237.

22. Trustee Minutes, Volume S-7, p. 190.

23. "Chapel Hill," Hillsborough Recorder (New Series), 28 April 1875: [3].

24. Paul C. Cameron, report, [1875], Subject and Undated Files, 1788-1930 and undated, folder 1714, University of North Carolina Papers #40005, University Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, [5-6].

25. C[ornelia] P. S[pencer], "University Normal School," North Carolina Presbyterian, 18 July 1877: [2].