Story by John Roberts
Photography by Jeremy Fleming ’08
When the first Furman students arrived on the University’s new campus in fall, 1955 to attend morning classes their initial impression was that “of a lonely, barren, wind-swept terrain, alternately dusty and muddy,” according to Alfred Reid’s Furman University, Toward a New Identity.
But University planners envisioned a different scene. In their mind’s eye, Furman would be a lush, green paradise, lined with majestic oaks and shaded by tree canopies. And they were eager to reshape and transform the former pastureland. In 1956 alone, landscapers planted more than 1,400 trees and 1,000 shrubs.
Fast-growing water and pin oaks were stationed 30 or 40 feet apart on the main mall and sprinkled liberally around the main entrance, lake and residence halls. Today, those wooded sentries are a signature of campus. But they are beyond their twilight and are nearing the end of their expected life. Many of their trunks are hollow and cracked. Crowded roots compete for nourishment and they are struggling to survive.
In recent years, workers have marked and removed about 70 unhealthy trees. Most of the cutting occurs when the campus is closed between the Christmas and New Year holidays. The university is working on a plan to gradually replace all of the stately oaks along the mall with their more robust and longer living white oak species.
Jeff Redderson, associate vice president for facility services, says about 20 of the trees in the poorest condition were removed over Christmas break in 2014. The initial phase of the campus tree renewal plan will begin over the Christmas break in 2016 (most likely in the Milford Mall area). That plan will take some eight to 12 years to complete and in addition to tree replacements, will include improvements to the exterior lighting and sidewalks. In the end, the mall will have a younger, more open feel.
“Most of the work will be done over Christmas so it will not interfere with classes and other operations,” says Redderson. “It will be done over a period of eight to twelve years, so hopefully folks won’t notice much of a change.”
The University is exploring options for what to do with the wood from the trees. The wood is currently in storage going through a curing process which takes approximately a year. Ideas include mantles, tables, cutting boards, and pen/pencil sets, but no decisions have been made yet.
The Biltmore Estate, a tourist attraction in Asheville that draws nearly one million visitors annually, faced a similar dilemma in the 1990s. Many of the poplar trees on the estate grounds had outgrown their 100-year life expectancy. Some were in danger of falling.
“I encouraged them to cut them all down,” said Ken Knox, the owner and founder of The Tree Doctor who has done consulting work for Biltmore, Furman, the Masters and more than 200 golf courses during a 57-year career. “The trees were not safe.”
Over the next several years, Biltmore replaced more than 100 trees. The process was completed in 1998.
The typical life expectancy of Furman’s water oak tree is 60-70 years, says Scot Sherman, director of facilities planning, construction and grounds. Many of the trees along the mall and entrance, he said, were spaced about 35 feet apart which has had a negative impact on their development. Oaks, he said, should be planted at least 50 feet apart to allow for proper root development.
The replacement trees, about 30-40 feet in height, have a life expectancy of 250 years. They are slower growing but will be around when the great-great-great grandchildren of today’s crop of Furman students are of college age.
“We are making decisions now that will last 200 years,” says Redderson. “That’s pretty cool to think about.”