Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Marvin's Gardens

Cloudy and chilly, the morning of Friday, March 29, 1878, found Mount Oread teeming with KU students and faculty. On any other weekday, these campus denizens would be bearing books or papers.

But on this day in KU history, they carried spades and tree saplings. There was a reason for this unusual equipage. Chancellor James Marvin had suspended classes, calling a general University holiday in order to allow – and possibly provide incentive for – all members of the KU community to participate in Lawrence’s first Arbor Day festivities.

Working in small groups overseen by faculty members, the students good-naturedly competed with one another to see how quickly they could set the hackberry, evergreen, elm, honey locust, and other seedlings into their assigned sections of land.

Faculty members, one eyewitness recalled, took turns giving brief speeches, “humorous or otherwise,” at the request of the Douglas County Horticultural Society, which had donated the trees.

Victorian principles ensured that women were largely excluded from the physical labor. However, a bevy of KU coeds was present nonetheless, “attractively garbed in their calico aprons,” as Dr. E.H.S. Bailey noted. They also played a vital role in sustaining the exercise, their job being to “furnish lunch for the workers.”

Meanwhile, Chancellor Marvin, an avid amateur horticulturist, personally directed the event, occasionally taking a spade in hand to demonstrate to one group or another the proper manner in which the planting should be done. By day’s end, more than 300 young trees had found new homes on Mount Oread.

A year earlier, Marvin had participated in what is considered the University’s first formal tree-planting ceremony, but the mass event on March 29, 1878, marked the beginning of the KU’s first purposeful campaign of “campus beautification.”

The eastern edge of Marvin Grove on Mississippi Street.

This effort, which consisted largely of planting trees, probably ranks as the most lasting legacy of Marvin’s tenure on Mount Oread. But the chancellor’s project to lift a canopy of leaves and branches over KU’s campus was hardly unique. Indeed, it was part of a larger attempt to transform the grasslands of Kansas into forests.

Marvin's horticultural impulse stemmed from a combination of the cultural values of the region’s first white settlers, the economic significance of wood, and a pseudo-scientific theory of climate modification that held sway at the time.

Prior to full-scale white settlement, those Euro-Americans who traversed Kansas had been shocked at the relative lack of trees on the plains and had seen little promise in its grasslands. Returning from his 1806 exploration, US Army officer Zebulon Pike had described the territory that would become Kansas as the “Great American Desert.”

Subsequent explorers would confirm Pike’s assessment. Stephen Long, for example, who covered some of the same ground a little over a decade later, claimed the region bore a “manifest resemblance to the deserts of Siberia.” And as late as the early 1830s, Euro-Americans considered Kansas so worthless that much of the present-day state was originally given over to Native American tribes that had been forced to relocate there from the East and Midwest by the federal government.

This attitude had changed by the time Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 that created Kansas Territory and opened the area to white settlement. For settlers seeking low-cost arable land, Kansas had come to be seen as offering great agricultural potential.

Although visions of farms had replaced reports of deserts, Kansas still seemed deserted, especially in the eyes of the new arrivals from the heavily forested eastern states, who were unaccustomed to the enormous stretches of grassland they encountered in Kansas.

In addition, these settlers carried within them a deeply rooted Enlightenment Age concept of civilization that entailed an idealized pastoral landscape full of trees.

Further, since nineteenth-century Americans relied on wood for an enormous range of uses — from the construction of houses, furniture, bridges, roads, and sidewalks, to the fuel for everyday cooking and heating, to its industrial function for powering locomotives and steamboats, and for making charcoal for a burgeoning iron industry — this lack of timber also was considered a hindrance to the rapid economic development of Kansas.

This economic incentive and cultural disposition to plant trees dovetailed neatly with a variation of a contemporary maxim that “rain follows the plow.” Indeed, for a large portion of the late-nineteenth century, many scientists – who rightly linked forests with regions of heavier rainfall – theorized that covering the Great Plains with trees could modify the region’s climate, making it more temperate.

As a result, as environmental historian Brian Drake has pointed out, promoting forestry in Kansas “became a kind of social cure-all that would simultaneously bring the rains, tame the land, raise the cultural level of the populace, and make everyone rich, all at the same time.”

It is hardly surprising, then, that Kansans embarked on a serious endeavor to transform the prairies into forests. Although it would not meet with great success, this effort lasted more than a half-century.

By the time James Marvin arrived in Kansas early in 1875 to assume his post as KU’s new chancellor, attempts at forestation were well underway. The Kansas State Horticultural Society, a champion of tree planting in the state, had been formed six years earlier.

In its wake, several counties, including Douglas, had organized similar societies. Like many other educated Easterners, KU’s third chancellor became caught up in the tree-planting craze. He joined the Douglas County Horticultural Society and often hosted the society’s winter gatherings at the University.

In the mid-1870s, the KU campus was largely treeless. According to a report in the Graduate Magazine, during the University’s first decade, “Mount Oread was bare save for tufts of prairie grass.” The situation began to change when Marvin, “who had an interest in arboriculture,” became chancellor.

Following his first major tree-planting initiative in March 1878, Marvin undertook what would in retrospect be his most important horticultural project later that year. With the assistance of N.P. Deming, a friend from the Douglas County Horticultural Society, Marvin sought to seed black walnut trees in an area then known as North Hollow (present-day Marvin Grove) sometime in the fall of 1878.

At the time, prairie grass, protruding rocks, and what contemporaries referred to as crab apple trees, dominated the area, and many considered it to be something of an eyesore.

According to the generally accepted version of events, the chancellor was a frequent walker who liked to collect walnuts during his excursions.

At the urging of his wife, who perhaps sought to empty their house of this growing collection, Marvin decided to plant them in North Hollow. He sought Deming’s assistance, and the chancellor’s friend in turn pressed his son, along with a KU student rooming at his home, into service. The four men then set out to do their small part to “make a garden out of the prairie.”

Looking back on the event more than 30 years later, Deming remembered taking two bushels of walnuts and heading to the draw on the appointed afternoon to meet Chancellor Marvin. Deming and his two assistants “dug holes, and as Dr. Marvin dropped the walnuts in, [we] covered them up,” Deming recalled.

Apparently caught up in the excitement of the project, Deming later told Marvin, “We will live and meet and crack nuts under these trees.” Unfortunately, Deming was never able to keep his projected appointment with the chancellor (though this was no fault of the trees, some 130 of which had firmly taken root in North Hollow by the early twentieth century).

Less than five years after the initial planting, when the trees were still too young to produce nuts, Marvin was forced to leave KU for political reasons. The chancellor was a staunch Republican, generally not a bad thing to be in Kansas. In 1882, however, the voters of the Sunflower State elected the state’s first Democratic governor, George W. Glick. The Democratic chief executive and the Republican chancellor soon came into conflict.

By June 1883, Glick had packed the KU Board of Regents with a majority of his handpicked appointees. With the backing of this new Board, Glick was able to maneuver Marvin into resigning from KU.

The ex-chancellor, however, remained in Lawrence. Marvin served as the first superintendent of what is now Haskell Indian Nations University from 1883 to 1885, and spent his final working years as pastor of the city’s First Methodist Episcopal Church. The man most responsible for sowing the seeds of today’s shady KU campus passed away in 1901, at the age of 71.

Even before Marvin’s death, the fruits of his campus beautification efforts were well received. A representative reaction was an editorial in the November 28, 1896, edition of the Kansas University Weekly, which hailed the “great improvement” being made in North Hollow.

“Heretofore the weeds and underbrush have held undisputed control of the place,” it began, “and no one but an enthusiastic botanist or entomologist … has ever dared to penetrate this miniature wilderness.” But, thanks to the early initiative of Chancellor Marvin, the column continued, “it requires only a moderate exercise of imagination to picture here as pretty a little park as could be desired.”

The editorialist was particularly pleased that North Hollow had come to provide KU students with “somewhere to go for a short walk between classes; a place in which to eat open-air dinners in fine weather; and some grove in the vicinity of town in which to have picnic parties.”

Of course, nearly every project has its detractors, and what most considered a valiant, civilizing endeavor, an improvement on the natural environment, others saw as meddling – or worse.

One week later, the December 5, 1896, edition of the Kansas University Weekly published a letter from a pessimistic correspondent who interpreted the wave of landscaping in North Hollow as merely the precursor to eventually grading the entire area to become a park and picnic ground at the end of the line of Lawrence’s streetcar system, a common development at the time in towns and cities across the country.

“What we old fogies beg for,” this letter writer urged, “is conservatism.” He was appalled by the prospect of returning to campus some day and finding “the violets beheaded by the lawn mower, the wild crab apple thickets thinned out of existence, and not a nodding anemone head out of all the hosts of former years to give us greeting.”

“In short,” he concluded, “our education might not prove liberal enough to keep us from preferring the beauty of nature to a certain sort of artificial beauty.”

This call to leave nature to its own devices fell largely on deaf ears. The Kansas State Horticultural Society, supported by two forestry experiment stations in the western part of the state that fostered saplings and distributed them at no cost, continued to promote tree planting across Kansas, despite evidence that the few small-scale successes, such as North Hollow, had occurred in the moister, eastern part of the state.

The failures to grow trees in western Kansas, the horticultural society and its proponents insisted, had little to do with the environment and much to do with faulty planting and “the lack of proper care.”

For that matter, the federal government hadn’t given up hope of seeing forests emerge in the Wheat State either. Consequently, bolstered by the US Forest Service’s recent success in establishing a forest in the Nebraska Sandhills, in 1905 the federal government set aside 30,000 acres in Finney County as the Kansas National Forest.

The creation of the Kansas National Forest generated a good bit of enthusiasm and optimism throughout the state. But despite being managed by Forest Service experts, within a decade it had become abundantly clear that the endeavor had failed completely, that it was the unforgiving climate of western Kansas, not “the lack of proper care” that was responsible for the absence of forests there.

Although the Finney County venture would not pan out, KU’s more modest forestation effort in North Hollow continued to blossom. By the early twentieth century, it arguably had become the most aesthetically pleasing place on campus. George Kessler, the landscape architect who had laid out Kansas City’s famous parks and boulevards system, certainly thought so.

Indeed, when he set out to craft the first written plan for the development of KU’s campus in 1904, he was so enraptured by the heart-shaped area filled with trees originally planted at Marvin’s behest that he organized his campus plan around it.

By 1906, the KU Board of Regents decided to formally recognize Marvin’s contributions. On the June 6 of that year, the board voted to rename North Hollow as Marvin Grove.

A follow-up article in the October 1906 Graduate Magazine further extended the credit for which Marvin was due, and acknowledged the appropriateness of honoring the man “under whose administration most of the trees now on the University campus were planted.”

Of course, in the nearly 100 years since its dedication, Marvin Grove has changed substantially. As early as 1909, KU botany professor W.C. Stevens directed the planting of more than 100 oak trees along its eastern edge. Later, groupings of yellow willows, rosebud, flowering dogwoods, and two Burbank hybrid walnuts from California were introduced into the grove.

In 1911, the construction of Potter Lake added a markedly new element (and aura) to the entire area. For a time, a portion of the area also sported a seven-hole golf course, and during the waning days of World War II, German POWs performed some landscaping work on the grove.

There were, of course, occasional suggestions over the years that something more “useful” might be made of it, such as an athletic field or a parking lot. However, this possibility was effectively foreclosed in 1928 when the University accepted an updated campus plan that permanently set aside Marvin Grove (including Potter Lake) as off-limits to future building projects.

Thus, for the most part, the attention the University has focused on Marvin Grove over the last century has centered on ways in which it might be “improved” even further.

In the early 1980s, the University briefly flirted with the notion of creating a sculpture garden there. The first featured piece, by Kansas City artist Richard Hollander, was a black metal abstract creation called “I-70.” It was intended to represent “the experience of traveling on a superhighway” and to “reflect the idea of speeding cars weaving from lane to lane.”

The deeper meaning of this sculpture was evidently lost on most observers, the cheekiest of whom penned a letter to the Kansan likening it to “an explosion in a scrap metal junkyard” or perhaps to a “kindergarten Tinker toy creation.” He recommended the University return to its roots and go back to planting “trees and flowers – things far more pleasing to the average person’s eye.” Similar reactions combined to ensure “I-70” would be the first and only item in the Marvin Grove sculpture garden.

Over the years, the exact extent of the Grove’s original boundaries was forgotten. Most probably Marvin Grove initially included the area that is today bounded by Memorial Drive on the south, the Campanile on the west, the Spencer Art Museum on the east and Memorial Stadium (along with its parking lot) on the north.

However, because its borders have become somewhat amorphous, some University publications refer to the entire green space between the entirety of Memorial Drive and Memorial Stadium as Marvin Grove.

Whatever its precise boundaries, Marvin Grove remains a popular destination for quiet study and reflection, romantic walks, and midday recreation. Long a photographic staple of University brochures, it has sparked numerous tributes, none more celebratory than one published in the 1940 Jayhawker.

There is an “out-of-the-worldness about Marvin Grove in the spring,” the paean begins. In its midst, “The buildings along the Hill’s edge seem like remote castles, mere background for the tree-screened lushness of this green and pleasant world. It is quiet, secluded – yet in its stillness, very much alive.”

Overdone romanticism, maybe. But considering the near-complete collapse of nineteenth-century boosters’ plans for a thickly forested Kansas, one could surely be forgiven for waxing a bit poetic over the woody oasis that has sprouted on Mount Oread.

The wave of tree planting and other landscaping that took place on Marvin’s watch has benefited generations of Jayhawks and should continue to do so for as long as the University of Kansas exists.


[Source notes: The most abundant source of materials relating to Marvin Grove can be found in the Marvin Grove files housed in University Archives, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas. The documents and sources consulted in preparation of this article, in general order of usage, are as follows:A great deal of information on the Reverend James Marvin, much of it contemporary newspaper clippings and major addresses, can be found in the Marvin Papers, University Archives, Spencer Research Library. See also, Fred Ellsworth, “Our Amazing Chancellors,” Kansas Alumni, 63:2-7 (October 1964-March 1965). For a full account of Marvin’s tenure as chancellor of KU, see Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1974), pp. 66-142, passim; and Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1955), pp. 12, 18, 23, 25, 38, 39, and 194. 

For eyewitness accounts of the 1878 Arbor Day festivities on Mount Oread, see “Mt. Oread Owes Her Many Trees to Activities on Arbor Day in 1878,” University Daily Kansan, 11 April 1932, which includes the E.H.S Bailey quote. For perhaps the best early account of Chancellor Marvin’s tree-planting activities on Mount Oread and the celebration of what was likely the city’s first Arbor Day, see an article titled “The Trees of the Campus” from the December 1909 edition of the Graduate Magazine, pp. 77-81. Also helpful is the November 16, 1955, edition of the Kansan.
More general information on Arbor Day festivities across Kansas can be found in Frank W. Blackmar, Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, vol. I (Standard Publishing Co., 1912). See also the web site of the National Arbor Day Foundation:

It seems that there were not only green thumbs but also artistic hands at work on that day in late-March 1878. If the December 1909 Graduate Magazine is to be believed, a large group of elm trees was “set out according to a design representing Fraser [H]all, and most of those saplings are, at this day, considerable shade trees, standing so as to show clearly the original outline.”
The ceremonial tree planting if the spring of 1877 (over which Marvin presided) apparently witnessed a hackberry tree put in the ground “one hundred feet northeast of [old] Fraser [H]all.” See Graduate Magazine (December 1909), p. 77.

Arbor Day was still a holiday in its infancy at the time. It was first celebrated in Nebraska in 1872, only six years before Lawrence held its first festival of tree planting. And the holiday can certainly be considered a manifestation of the widespread tree-planting enthusiasm that swept the entire Great Plains region. The first recorded observance in Kansas occurred three years later when Topeka mayor Thomas J. Anderson declared April 23, 1875, Arbor Day in that city and presided as residents planted some 800 trees on capitol grounds. The first statewide recognition took place on April 25, 1883, at the behest of Governor George W. Glick.

Despite the general failure of the Plains states to raise a forest canopy over their grasslands, the initiative has continued. Today all states observe an Arbor Day on varying dates, most generally, however, on the last Friday in April.

The term “Great American Desert” was something of an indefinite one. In Carey and Lee’s Atlas of 1827 the “desert” covered all or portions of Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. Bradford’s Atlas, published 11 years later extended the territory east to include parts of Arkansas and Missouri and north to include parts of Wyoming and South Dakota. Other maps put it west of the Rockies. In general, the term came to be applied to much of the trans-Mississippi West, especially that portion east of the Rocky Mountains. For more on the term as it applies to Kansas, see Frank W. Blackmar’s Kansas: A Cyclopedia … (Chicago, 1912).
Though Kansans could pride themselves on their agricultural success in so maligned a region, the state’s boosters spurned the term “Great American Desert” because of its decidedly pejorative connotations.

Regarding the treelessness of Kansas, environmental historian Brian Allen Drake wryly observed that for nearly two centuries, “Kansas [has been] legendary for geographical monotony, for a landscape allegedly so absent of trees and relief that the state has become the butt of national jokes and a cultural synonym for flat.” See Brian Allen Drake, “Waving ‘A Bough of Challenge’: Forestry on the Kansas Grasslands, 1868-1915,” Great Plains Quarterly 23 (Winter 2003), 19. For a discussion of Western cultural values relative to a pastoral landscape and uncultivated land, see Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 4th ed. (Yale University Press, 2001) and Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden, (Oxford University Press, 1964).

The Kansas Forest Service estimates that “forests” covered roughly eight percent of the state prior to white settlement. This figure is more than double the forested area in Kansas today. Of course, a large portion of forest lands in Kansas was found in swaths along river and creek bottoms. These zones quickly came under pressure from emigrants who tended to follow trails that ran along these rivers. The Santa Fe Trail, for instance, followed the Arkansas River through a large part of the state. The US Army set up its forts in these areas, and settlers taxed the same forests for building supplies. Thus, these swaths were quickly denuded.

Wood was even more important to nineteenth-century Americans than plastic is to their modern counterparts. Over the latter half of the nineteenth century, Americans’ consumption of wood steadily rose from less than two billion to nearly 50 billion board feet. The development of the fossil fuel industry eventually gave America’s forests a reprieve of sorts, though it generated peculiar problems of its own.

The efforts to establish forests in Kansas were not unique. The federal Timber Act (1872), for instance, allowed settlers to claim 160 acres of land by agreeing to plant 40 of them with trees (and to care for those trees for 10 years). Its failure is evident on several fronts: First, the 40 acres eventually shrank to 10; and second, it was widely abused. Nearly 10 million acres of timber claims were entered in Kansas, 2 million of which were “proved.” However, as Drake points out, “few trees could actually be found on timber claims.” Since the act was so susceptible to fraud, it was often manipulated. Ranchers, for instance, would use timber claims to secure water rights and undermine competitors, etc. In any case, most other plains’ states initiated similar efforts. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska. For a detailed account of forestry on the Great Plains see Wilmon H. Droze, Trees, Prairies, and People: A History of Tree Planting in the Plains States (Denton, TX, 1977).

The best accounts of Kansas forestry are Drake, “Waving ‘A Bough of Challenge,’” and Willis Conner Sorensen, “The Kansas National Forest, 1905-1915,” Kansas Historical Quarterly 35 (Winter 1969).

As an interesting sidebar, the Regents’ first choice to become KU’s third chancellor, Professor Stephen H. Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin, declined the position after the shortest of visits to Lawrence. Having none of Marvin’s vision of a future shady and temperate Kansas, Carpenter was reportedly so pummeled by the oppressive August heat, and so aghast at the rainless, grasshopper-ridden skies, that he high-tailed it back to cooler Wisconsin climes before bidding anyone even a simple hello or goodbye.

More than likely, the “crab apple trees” referred to in contemporary sources were vestiges of an orchard from the farm of Charles Robinson, a founder of Lawrence, the state’s first governor, and a benefactor of the University, who had sold the school the North Hollow area at its founding. Robinson later sold the University the land on which McCook Field and subsequently Memorial Stadium were built. For a more substantive discussion of the role Robinson played in the founding of KU see Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History (Lawrence, KS, 1974).
The story of how Marvin and his friend, N.P. Deming, planted the grove’s first 130 walnut trees is recounted in the December 1909 edition of the Graduate Magazine.

The competing reactions to the “improvement” of North Hollow (later Marvin Grove) can be found in the November 28 and December 5, 1896, editions of Kansas University Weekly. See also the June 8, 1894, edition of the Students’ Journal.
By the turn of the century, scientists had abandoned the climate modification theory, though it lingered on as a folk belief. For a greater discussion of this see Drake, “Waving ‘A Bough of Challenge.’”

The contentions that faulty planting and a “lack of proper care” were responsible for the widespread failures that accompanied tree planting in the state were reflected even in the festivities surrounding Lawrence’s first Arbor Day celebration. The Douglas County Horticultural Society agreed to donate the trees with the provision that University officials would see that the ground “was properly graded and the trees were satisfactorily planted.”
The US Forest Service expanded the original 30,000 acres of the Kansas National Forest tenfold in 1907, shortly after a prairie fire had destroyed the less than 30 percent of the initial plantings that had managed to survive the first year. By 1915, as Willis Sorensen pointed out, the Kansas National Forest was “a total failure.” Some of the land became a game reserve (the state’s first for bison), though most was reopened to public domain.
Though less significant than the events discussed in the article above, Marvin’s tree-planting activities on Mount Oread were not limited to the years of 1877 and 1878. During his entire tenure, he apparently sought to raise a leafy canopy over the University campus. For example, he personally planted a redbud tree just south of the KU Natural History Museum, which for a long while was locally famous as the “Marvin redbud.” Similarly, he apparently planted a substantive clump of evergreens along the crest of Mt. Oread. For a mention of the latter, see the Graduate Magazine (October 1906), p.31.

The October 1906 edition of the Graduate Magazine, p. 31, details the Board of Regents’ decision to rename North Hollow in honor of the late Chancellor Marvin.

For examples of officially sanctioned University references to the entire green space around and including Potter Lake as Marvin Grove, see a reference to the Vietnam Memorial “at the edge of Marvin Grove” in several of the documents in the “Vietnam Memorial File,” Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas. See also “Memorable Mount Oread,” a video produced by the University of Kansas, directed by Clay Kappelman and narrated by Tom Hedrick.

For the evolution of Marvin Grove following the official renaming in 1906, see the University Daily Kansan, April 22, 1909, the Jayhawker yearbook (1940), p. 388, and the Alumni Magazine 57:3 (November 1958), pp. 3, 12-13. The creation of Potter Lake is detailed here:
The use of German POWs to perform landscaping work in Marvin Grove is mentioned in the November 14, 1945, edition of the Kansan. The German prisoners, who were also responsible for the construction of Danforth Chapel, were housed in Lawrence’s POW facility near the Santa Fe train station, one of 14 such camps in the Sunflower State. See John H. McCool, "Aspire Nobly, Adventure Daringly, Serve Humbly,” no longer at the following Web address:

To learn more about KU’s experiment in setting aside a portion of the grove as a sculpture garden, see the following: Oread, February 13, 1981, p. 1; Lawrence Journal-World, February 12, 1981, p. 3; University Daily Kansan, March 23, 1981, p. 6, and April 24, 1981, p. 4.

A wide range of literature deals with the ambiguity that has attended the “conquering” of wilderness, and the nostalgia for the “wildness” that was left in its wake. Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind deals with this extensively, as does Marx’s The Machine in the Garden. Arguably the clearest example of this, however, can be found in James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” novels. Written in the early nineteenth century, they wrestled with the ambiguity Cooper felt toward the legacy of his parents’ generation’s “civilizing” of western New York State.

The 1997 campus plan confirms that traditional “green spaces,” such as the “areas around Potter Lake and Marvin Grove” have been “preserved for generations. This preservation is expected to continue.”