The Beginnings of The Arb 

By Lindsay Boettiger ’23

The Carleton Arboretum was the brainchild of Carleton Professor of Botany and Natural History Harvey Stork. Stork was a skilled naturalist with a deep appreciation for and understanding of the environment native to southern Minnesota. He possessed a wealth of knowledge concerning the native flora and fauna of the region, and sought to further study and impart his expertise to students through experiential learning in the natural world. Stork cited the “the beauty, the economic importance, and biological interest,” as reasons for the establishment of an arboretum at Carleton. He continued to define an arboretum as “[bringing] together in one place collections of various species of trees… such a collection, known as an arboretum, is really a museum of living trees.” 

In 1926, Stork submitted a 66 page proposal for the Carleton Arboretum to President Donald J. Cowling. Complete with a history of the concept of an arboretum, the benefits an arboretum would bring to Carleton College, pictures of the proposed arboretum site, and a comprehensive list of trees, plants, and shrubs potentially suitable to be planted in the proposed arboretum, Stork’s proposal was effective. He included a brief history and utility of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University. In the context of Stork’s proposal of an arboretum at Carleton, the Arnold Arboretum was a case study of potential benefits of an arboretum at a higher education institution. 

The arboretum was primarily conceived of in the midst of the Great Depression, when the college had a relatively tight budget. This considered, President Cowling’s willingness to buy into the idea of an arboretum is less clear-cut than Stork’s. Whether envisioning Carleton’s growth and expansion in the future, or harboring a different motivation, President Cowling endorsed the project and went forward with repurposing land already owned by the college– including the Carleton farm– and acquiring more. 

Three years later, in 1929, a budget was put forward mostly concerning the costs of land acquisition, but also development work which included items like bridges. Land being acquired by Carleton for the purpose of an arboretum was largely private property, but also included City of Northfield property, Township of Waterford property, and Rice Country property. The 1929  budget projected the purchase of 355.5 acres– with some development work factored in– for $48,300. By June 30, 1931, Carleton had acquired 280.82 acres of land for a cost of $35,904.23, including the cost of development.

1931 Arbs Land Map Survey

The land now owned by Carleton was characterized by three miles of the Cannon River, a variety of soil types, diversity of land contour, flood-plain islands, sand and silt, stream banks, sedge bogs, low grassy plains, bluffs and jutting rocks, dry oak knolls, and loam plateaus. According to Stork, the combination of these unique natural features made Carleton’s old and newly acquired land prime territory for an arboretum. 

1931 Contour Map of the Arb

Furthermore, a changing cultural and social climate made the “time ripe,” for the creation of an arboretum, according to Stork’s proposal. 

“This section of the country is reaching the age in which the people exercise more and more leisurely arts. There is a growing interest in beautifying home grounds, public places and streets of town and city. Contrast an average town of the older sections of this country in the East with an average town of Minnesota and the latter presents, one is inclined to say, a comparatively ugly picture.” 

Stork saw a solution to this issue in an arboretum, and was particular in the trees and shrubs to be planted there. In Stork’s 1926 proposal for the arboretum, a botanist from the University of Minnesota commented on over two hundred species of shrubs and trees and their potential to survive and thrive in the varying soil conditions present in the land that would become the arboretum. In 1931, over ninety plants from four nurseries were introduced into the Carleton Arboretum. 

In a 1939 reflection on the development of the arboretum, Stork poetically compares his profession to the arts, and the significance that a space such as an arboretum provides: 

“The teacher of art finds it almost necessary to have a collection of reproductions from the world’s famous sculpture… Any teacher who can have a modest collection of this counts himself as fortunate. In the teaching of botany the teacher has continually round him a museum, or more or less adequate, of the subject that he is teaching. The most important of these from the viewpoint of landscape architectural beauty are the woody plants. For the landscape architect, the tree lends itself especially because of its permanence. The physiology of the tree presents all the problems present in the physiology of the lower plants.” 

Another important aspect of the arboretum that Professor Stork advocated for was a nature trail. Stork firmly believed equally as significant as the variety of trees and shrubs present in the arboretum was access to them. In 1930, at the suggestion from Stork, a 3.5 mile nature trail was forged in the arboretum. This allowed much easier access to the arboretum for educational and recreational purposes. In the 1939 assessment of the arboretum, the nature trail’s value was attested to: “A nature trail with an accompanying wayside directions bulletin has been in use for several years and is proving a great asset in natural history instruction.” The directions bulletin referred to was a biweekly nature publication established by Stork and contributed to by student naturalists. According to the same 1939 assessment, the bulletin is issued weekly in the spring months. Two small wayside kiosks with some museum material have been built, and it is planned to add others to forestry insect life, geology of the Cannon River Valley, wild flowers, aquatic life of the river, etc.” The bulletins provided all visitors information about the trees, shrubs, other plants, and various other aspects of the arboretum and was described as a vessel for “intelligent observation, understanding, and appreciation of the realm of nature is the object of the nature trail established at this Minnesota college.” 

In an later reflection on the arboretum in around 1944, it was stated that “the visitor to an arboretum may see what kinds of trees and shrubs are hardy, under what conditions of soil, moisture, and exposure they grow, and what they are capable of contributing to the landscape in aesthetic value.” Throughout the ensuing decades, the arb would continue to serve as a place of recreation, education and a “museum of trees.” Stork’s 1926 dreams had come to fruition. 

The cover of a 1939 edition of The Nature Trail Bulletin