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Two students sit together in the Slayton Arboretum. Courtesy | Hillsdale Alumni Magazine
Two stu­dents sit together in the Slayton Arboretum.
Courtesy | Hillsdale Alumni Magazine

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.”