Slayton Arboretum Turns 100!
Written by Monica VanDerWeide, ’95
How many times did you walk through the gates of Slayton Arboretum as a student and instantly feel a sense of peace rush over you? Did you stand atop Mt. Zion and take in the view of campus? Or perhaps you and your beloved found a sequestered spot for a romantic rendezvous. Tucked away in the northeast corner of campus, Slayton Arboretum offers a secluded retreat from the busyness of college life, an outdoor laboratory for science classes, and a gathering place for all who love nature. This beckoning beauty, fondly nicknamed “the Arb,” celebrates its centennial this year.
Slayton Arboretum was born when 1872 alumni George and Abbie Dunn Slayton donated 14 acres to Hillsdale College in honor of the 50th anniversary of their Hillsdale graduation. But the land had already been used by Hillsdale students since before the Civil War. Although the land was initially known as VanValkenburgh’s pasture, students christened the elevation in the pasture Mt. Zion in 1860 after Professor Henry Whipple gave a sermon likening Hillsdale College to the biblical Mt. Zion. Students retreated to Mt. Zion to practice orations and to have corn and marshmallow roasts. As Charles Soule, an 1865 graduate and “co-founder” of Mt. Zion said, “We two discoverers led our crowd to this ‘Mt. Zion’ and on its shaded slopes held hands and indulged in the silly talk of youth.”
Dr. Bertram Barber of Hillsdale’s Biology Department set to work immediately in 1922 upon the College’s acquisition of the land. He envisioned transforming the land into an outdoor laboratory and field station for students and a biological garden for the community. With the help of students, his brother Austin, and his father Robert, Dr. Barber spent the next decade excavating ponds, designing and constructing the stone buildings, and planting trees and flowers.
In 1935, the City of Hillsdale donated to the College a 2.5-acre former gravel pit adjacent to the Arboretum. Dr. Barber turned what had become a dumping ground into a lush and lovely amphitheater, featuring a gazebo with amplifiers, a lily pool, and stone benches. Many Commencements and summer theatre productions were held in the amphitheater, and it remains a popular site for weddings and the Student Activities Board Garden Party.
By the late 1930s, Slayton Arboretum had become nationally renowned in the world of botany for its beauty and its exhibitions of rare plants. It was listed as a point of interest in Michigan, and, on some days, its visitors numbered in the hundreds. Dr. Barber continued to maintain the Arboretum until his death in 1967.
Recent decades have seen additional improvements and renovations such as the Children’s Garden, a cast-iron fence around the perimeter of the Arb to keep deer out, and the conversion of the Barber House into a visitor center, library, and meeting room. The annual plant sale brings College and community together to raise funds for the Arboretum.
Hillsdale College is forever grateful to Dr. Bertram Barber and the many individuals, both from the College and community, who have labored to keep Slayton Arboretum beautiful and functional over the past 100 years. Their efforts, and the ongoing work of the College grounds crew and many volunteers, allows the Arb to continue to be a peaceful retreat and a lovely site to “indulge in the silly talk of youth.”
Monica VanDerWeide is Director of Marketing Content for Hillsdale College. She graduated from Hillsdale in 1995 with a degree in English and German.
Published in January 2022