The Hidden History of Slayton Arboretum

Written by Brynn Elson

The average Hillsdale student spends a few hours each day in class, a few studying in A.J.’s or the library, a few in the dining hall, and (ideally) eight hours asleep in their dorm. Between studying, eating, and sleeping, few people find time to go outside and experience nature. It’s easy to forget about the fourteen-acre forest attached to the edge of campus, but junior Mattie Schmidt is determined to remind students that it exists. Mattie is a rhetoric and public address major and an Arb caretaker. Her unique title comes with some unique responsibilities: she tends the “hot spots” (the hillside by the fountain, for example) and protects the Arb’s native growth from invasive species. In other words, Mattie gets paid to garden.

Mattie explains that her position is unique because her labor produces tangible results. She also gets to express her creativity in the Arb. You’ve heard of interior designers and clothing designers, but have you heard of a “plant designer?” As part of her job, Mattie plays the role of landscaper. She says that she loves deciding “which textures and color tones contrast well in an area.”

Though Mattie only works part-time, she explained that prior Arb caretakers made a full-time career out of their work. In Slayton Arboretum’s “glory days,” botanists, horticulturists, and arborists flocked to see the Arb’s three main collections: magnolia trees, witch hazel, and lilac bushes. The Arb was famous for these three collections, until they were nearly eradicated by invasive deer. In the same vein, Mattie explained that invasive species like buckthorn, burning bushes, and Chinese bittersweet can choke out the native species that people want to see.

Mattie has seen photos that date back to 1912, and she described the bygone Arb as “glorious.” Entire committees of gardeners took care of the individual collections; the Arb was positively crawling with horticulturists. Samuel Barber (for whom the Barber House and Barber Drive are named) and his brother completed all of the Arb’s stonework during this “Golden Age.” Mattie explained that, for this reason, the stonework is her favorite part of the whole area. The walls and staircases were all built by hand.

If you’re a Hillsdale College student, chances are you’ve walked through the Arb at least once. Most people step on the staircases, sit in the pavilions, and run their fingers over the walls, not knowing the history of the place. Mattie’s work is important because it preserves the Arboretum’s beautiful history and allows students to enjoy nature, even in the midst of midterms.

Since students spend a fair amount of time studying the good, the true, and the beautiful, they should think about spending more time in the beautiful place that is (for at least the freshman girls) essentially their backyard.

Brynn Elson, ’23, is a biochemistry major with a decent comprehension of the English language. She enjoys drinking coffee, playing the clarinet, and overcommitting to things. When she’s not studying (which is rare), you might be able to find her running (read: getting lost) on the back roads or complaining about Hillsdale’s lack of mountains.

Published in December 2020