Heritage Trees at the Poorhouse
In 1987 the American Forestry Association (AFA) initiated the “Plant a Living Legacy” program to honor the bicentennial of the writing and signing of the Constitution of the United States in 1787. To communities that were accepted into the program, the AFA would supply 10 seedlings from trees that had been planted by our country’s Founding Fathers or that were witness to historic events associated with America’s founding. The initial idea was for the seedlings to arrive on September 17, the actual date of the signing of the Constitution. It was a beautiful, symbolic plan that proved impossible to execute because of practical considerations.
Bob Batt, an employee of Hillsdale BPU and the Forester for the City of Hillsdale in 1987, moved quickly when he heard about the Famous and Historic Tree Grove. Hillsdale seemed to be tailor-made for the seedlings, meeting all the requirements:
1. There was a suitable location and plan for the maintenance of the seedlings for the first two to three years after they arrived. A section at the edge of Lake View Cemetery on Barnard Street, which belonged to the city, was sheltered, with water available.
2. Several areas of land owned by the city offered sections with few or no trees for a permanent spot for the Grove. Originally, Waterworks Drive, which wound around Waterworks Park and Owen Park on its way to Sandy Beach, seemed the best place. It had good soil, available water, and the trees would be seen by all who passed by.
3. Hillsdale was unusual for a town of it size. It was the smallest municipality with an official forester and had been named as a “Tree City U.S.A.” for 10 straight years. The Municipal Shade Tree ordinance of Hillsdale had already established a tree plan, including financial and physical maintenance, and the Grove would fit right into it. A financial maintenance plan for the five years after the seedlings arrived was easily accommo-dated within its budget.
4. Securing an “official, public proclamation from the mayor” was a piece of cake.
The final statement in the application asked for a $150 “donation” to the American Forestry Association. No problem there either.
Bob Batt pitched an additional reason that Hillsdale should be one of the communities receiving the historic trees: 1987 was the sesquicentennial of the year Michigan attained statehood. That was true for many other towns in Michigan applying for the Grove, of course, but Bob proposed a unique angle. He would plant Eastern White Pines, the state tree of Michigan, along with the historic seedlings so as to link our sesquicentennial and the signing of the Constitution.
With the blessing of the Director of Utilities and Shade Tree Commission member Ron Neer, Bob applied for the Grove in March 1987, and Hillsdale was selected as one of 70 communities in 32 states to receive the trees. Additionally, as one of the first 200 applicants, Hillsdale was to receive a sycamore from trimmings done at Ellis Island and a Japanese Flowering Cherry that had been a gift of Japan to the United States in 1912.
Although the AFA wanted to adhere to its original intention to deliver the trees on the exact 200th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, they had to consider the chances for the survival of the seedlings. They chose to delay shipment until the spring of 1988 to give the seedlings a better chance at survival.
Included in the trees that Hillsdale was to receive were a sycamore from one of George Washington’s five plantations, five seedlings from Williamsburg and a couple from Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation. The seedlings from Williamsburg weren’t actually from the original trees, of course. They came from trees planted in the 1930s when archaeological work was begun in the area where Williamsburg stood. The seedlings from Monticello, however, came from really elderly trees that were planted by Jefferson and weren’t germinating well … which is hardly a surprise. But that wasn’t the only problem. Handwritten notes from Bob Batt in the heritage tree file in the Forester’s office detail various difficulties in getting the seedlings from the AFA to Hillsdale. One list is entitled “What we lost” and includes trees that never arrived.
Those seedlings that did get to Hillsdale were duly planted in the Lake View Cemetery “nursery” in a public ceremony on April 21, 1988, Arbor Day. Then those that survived their nursery experience were planted not along Waterworks Drive, but at the Will Carleton Poorhouse in the spring of 1990. Bob Evans Farms had deeded the Poorhouse to the Hillsdale County Historical Society in 1987, and a herculean renovation
effort had brought it back to life. It was a perfect setting for the Historic Tree Grove.
Included in Bob Batt’s file were certificates of authenticity for the trees received by the City of Hillsdale, as well as information about the parent trees of the seedlings. How many were planted at the Poorhouse is not recorded, but today three strong trees stand to the south of the barn at the Poorhouse. On the north is a Carter’s Grove Black Locust. Its ancestors were part of a grove planted to commemorate the centennial celebration of the Victory at Yorktown in 1881 by Edward G. Booth, Sr. He recently had acquired the grove from the James River Plantation that was eight miles southeast of Williamsburg. In the middle is an Eastern White Pine, the state tree of Michigan, planted by Bob Batt to commemorate Michigan’s sesquicentennial. On the south is a Southern Catalpa. It came from the trees planted in the 1930s when the restoration of Williamsburg began. In the 1780s Thomas Jefferson made the plan for the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg and noted “the rows of trees 100 feet apart.” He didn’t mention the catalpa, but a journal kept by General de Lauferdiere has an entry for July 1782 in which he says, “The governor of Virginia also had in Williamsburg a very fine palace, built at the extremity of a handsome street planted with catalpas.”
No certificate of authenticity for another locust tree located to the west of the General Store was found. However, Phil Wilson, who was president of the Society at the time, believes that it was also part of the heritage grove.
The existence of heritage trees at the Poorhouse was known, but the specifics about how they got there were not. Gary Stachowicz, the current Forester for the City of Hillsdale, discovered Bob Batt’s heritage tree information in the winter of 2014-15. Going through old files at the Department of Public Service, he found a complete record of how Hillsdale came to be the home for one of the Famous and Historic Tree Groves made available by the AFA. Gary contacted the Society, gave us copies of the most
pertinent records and identified the trees that thrive today at the Poorhouse. Another historical mystery in Hillsdale County was solved thanks to a forester with both a deep knowledge and a genuine love of trees.
JoAnne P. Miller