Less than 100 years ago, Slayton Arboretum had some of the largest collections of lilacs, magnolias, and witch hazel varieties. By studying catalogues from the 1940 by former Hillsdale College biology professor and student Bertram Barber, sophomore Katy Borobia and junior Madeline Schmidt hope to restore the plant life in the arboretum and share its rich history with the public.
Borobia works closely with Hillsdale College’s horticulturist Angie Girdham in the children’s garden, and is spearheading the Barber House Project by cataloguing books, newspaper clippings, photographs, and other documents related to the arboretum’s history.
“We’re trying to get all of our children’s books and gardening books catalogued to set them up as a library in the Barber House,” Borobia said. “We’re also trying to get newspaper clippings and other documents so that besides the books in the library, there’s more of a historical museum aspect to the library.”
By combining Borobia’s research with her own studies, Schmidt said she’s working primarily in the arboretum to care for parts that have fallen into miscare over the past ten years. In addition to the goal of restoring the lilac, magnolia, and witch hazel collections, Schmidt said she and other workers in the arboretum are focused on restoring plant life around the waterfall and the heart-shaped pond.
“The ultimate vision is to have it be cared for, because when things look bad is when they’re in miscare,” Schmidt said. “To have all 12 acres cared for and to have work applied to it would be the ultimate goal.”
Though they’re restoring these original collections, Schmidt said there are some species of plants they want to get rid of because those species, such as the burning bush, have become invasive.
“The invasive species have definitely wreaked havoc on the arboretum, choking it out in some places,” Schmidt said. “But the conservation club has been helping clean up. They did an arboretum clean-up, which is fabulous. I’m so grateful for that.”
Borobia said she spent more time researching for the Barber House Project through the winter months because there was not much work to be done outside. As spring rolls around, both Borobia and Schmidt said they will be working more outside to care for the plants and property of the arboretum.
Even as both students begin to spend more time tending to the garden, the Barber House Project and restoration of the arboretum work hand-in-hand to increase student, alumni, donor, and community interest in the arboretum.
Borobia and Schmidt both said they were surprised by how college and community interest in the arboretum goes through cycles.
“It’s interesting to see how this care of the arboretum ebbs and flows throughout the years,” Schmidt said. “Angie said it’s about every 17 years that it takes a hit.”
Schmidt said the arboretum was a very prestigious place to visit in Michigan during the 1930s. According to the college’s website, “the B.A. Barber Amphitheatre was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1939. That same year, Slayton Arboretum was listed as one of Michigan’s Points of Interest, and up to seven hundred people a day visited the site.”
Additionally, the college’s fraternities and sororities used the arboretum for events throughout the later half of the 1900s. Borobia said Sigma Chi and Delta Tau Delta spent many hours caring for the arboretum property in the ’80s and ’90s.
Borobia said one of the goals with the Barber House Project is to share the arboretum’s history with people so more take an interest in caring for the property through labor or donations.
“I hope people that come to the Barber House once the library and museum are done will be able to appreciate that the arboretum had a long history with the college even before the property was given to the college,” Borobia said.
The history of college students using the property goes back beyond when the college owned the property.
After listening to a sermon about Mt. Zion at College Baptist Church, two students headed over to present-day Slayton Arboretum to talk and dubbed the wooded knob of Van Valkenburgh’s cow pasture “Mt. Zion.” Prior to George Slayton and his wife donating 14 acres to Hillsdale College in 1922, students have referred to the arboretum property as “Mt. Zion” since the 1860s.
Associate Professor of Biology Jeffrey Van Zant said he hopes this project will help others recognize how meaningful the property of the arboretum has been for Hillsdale College students throughout the school’s history.
“I know the arboretum has been one of my favorite places here, and I know it has been for others,” Van Zant said. “But you really can’t take that back in time unless you read through those old articles that tell you it was an important place for students long before we’ve been around here.”
Borobia said she has come to develop a great appreciation for Barber and his devotion to the arboretum.
“I wish that more students knew how much Dr. Barber did his work out of love for the students and wanted them to be able to enjoy and learn from the arboretum,” Orobia said. “He was a student while it was Mt. Zion, but he wanted more people to keep enjoying it, to be able to learn to love it themselves, to learn to take care of it, and to take pride in all the different species of plants and wildlife. It’s truly worthy of study.”
While the original nickname for the arboretum property has its origins at College Baptist, Borobia said through her research she discovered Barber had a very different experience at College Baptist, which he shared in his 1955 Commencement Address. Barber, who parted his hair down the middle, went to the church upon arriving as a student and gained some interesting advice from the minister.
“In the commencement address, Barber said, ‘I was quite taken aback when one of these ministers informed me that young men who parted their hair in the middle were headed straight for Hades,’” Borobia said. “That was his first impression of Hillsdale College when he first got here, and it’s very funny.”
Despite Barber’s middle part, Orobia said his catalogues have been invaluable for identifying plants in the arboretum. Even though Hillsdale College acquired Slayton Arboretum in 1922, it was not until 1928, when Barber began to plant, that the arboretum became abundant with wildlife.
In addition to the planting, Barber’s brother and father were stone masons and created all of the stonework in the arboretum from the waterfall, the pond, and the gazebo.
Schmidt said she discovered an interesting fact about the bridges in the arboretum.
“I was recently looking into the Cardoza brothers, two brothers from Mexico, and they were trained by some fairly well-known artists on how to make bridges out of cement and how to make that cement look like wood,” Schmidt said. “There’s three bridges that were created by them in Hillsdale. One of them is at Mrs. Stock’s Park, and then the other two are in the arboretum.”
As both Borobia and Schmidt continue working on restoring the history and property of the arboretum, both encouraged students to spend more time studying, walking, or taking photos in the arboretum.
As the temperature continues to rise, Schmidt said she looks forward to working more in the arboretum.
“The thing with gardening is that it never stops because the weeds will always toil, and man will have to take care of them,” Schmidt said. “That’s the beauty of it as well. It’s going to be something continuous that outlives me and the other people working in the arboretum.”