Before it was Slayton Arboretum, it was just a hilly gathering of trees two friends stumbled across while looking for a place to talk and smoke.
The arboretum is now a beautiful place on campus for studying, conversation, reflection, dates, parties, or group events. “The Arb” has been here for almost as long as Hillsdale College, and has been a place for student fellowship since its founding.
The Arb was first founded in 1863 by those two friends who came across it after a Sunday service. According to Jeffrey Van Zant, associate professor of Biology and director of the Slayton Arboretum, the two named the “wooded Knob-hill full of trees” Mt. Zion, after the topic of the sermon that morning.
Throughout those years, Mt. Zion became the place to be for students. People hosted orations, breakfasts, dinners, group gatherings, and late night bonfires. Metal detectors have found spoons, forks, and make-up kits which hint at a deep history of social life in the Arb. However, Mt. Zion was also a secluded, private place to go.
“Many people called it ‘the spooning place,’ a term which culturally referred to courtship or dating,” Van Zant said. “Some spouses from the Board of Directors across the years have shared that they had their first kiss with their spouse in the Gazebo in the Arb.”
The arb also contains decades of memories among friends.
Two Hillsdalians named Kelly and Zerwick met many times at Mt. Zion. When Kelly passed away, Zerwick planted a garden and named it after his close friend. Once Zerwick passed away, his family renamed the garden the “Kelly and Zerwick Garden.”
In 1922, Mt. Zion was officially named the Slayton Arboretum. According to a 1994 issue of the Hillsdale Alumni Magazine, the arboretum was largely donated by Abbie Dunn-Slayton, who was the daughter of Ransom Dunn, and George Slayton, a Hillsdale alum who paid for his education by digging potatoes and chopping firewood for 15 cents an hour.
“The Slaytons were donors of the primary amount of land of the Arb,” Van Zant said. Despite this name change, most students at the time still fondly referred to the place as Mt. Zion. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Betram Barber, a professor of biology, was the primary grounds keeper of the Arb. In the late 1920s, Barber, his father, and his brother built the gazebo that is still present today. According to Van Zant, Barber’s family were great stonemasons.
“They knew how to place stones,” Van Zant said. “The construct speaks for itself.”
They also built the stone lab to be a storehouse for materials and a place to escape the cold Michigan winters. Today, the Barber House, located next to Olds and named after Barber, is considered part of Slayton Arboretum.
In the 1970s, after Barber’s death, the Arb fell into disrepair, and Hillsdale College decided to stop investing in the upkeep of the grounds. The Collegian published an article advocating for the Arb and wrote to alumni and donors of Hillsdale, pleading for their help to preserve the beloved place. Friends of the college answered the call. Their responses were published in the April 22, 1971 edition of the Collegian. In addition, the Student Federation donated $3000 to the cause.
The Collegian wrote, “With the restoration program and apparent student concern, the Collegian hopes this attitude will change. The students have faithfully given their money. Now we need their pride.” Both Hillsdale students’ love of the Arb and the Collegian’s pleas preserved the Arb so that others still enjoy it today.
Today, Van Zant and horticulturalist Angie Girdham work diligently to preserve the memory and grounds of the Arb. Girdham hires students from various majors who wish to work outdoors and invest in the upkeep of the Arb. According to Van Zant, members of Hillsdale staff are “hoping to rework the Arb.” The beautiful waterfall is a recent 2013 addition to the beautiful greenery and forests.
The arb today serves as a place for students to enjoy nature, study, and attend campus events like Garden party.
“I like picking wildflowers in the Arb. It’s also a great place to enjoy nature while studying,” freshman Karis Moody said.
Van Zant said he loved that students were once again able to celebrate Garden Party in the Arb.
“We did not plan on turning on the sprinklers at 9 p.m.,” he said, laughing.
Van Zant wishes to “regrow more student interest” by scheduling more events such as concerts, meals, performances, and even weddings in the Arb. He expressed hope for the Arb to host SAB events, despite the unpredictable Michigan weather.
“It is good to understand and remember the history of a place. Whatever name we give expresses our association with that place,” Van Zant said. “Hopefully, the Arb can once again become a place of student fellowship and life-long memories.”