A Brief Overview of the History of the Carleton College Cowling Arboretum
The Arb Before Carleton Ownership
The Mdewankaton and Wahpukute Dakota people inhabited the Northfield area, and a major trading path passed through the Lower Arb and crossed the Cannon River in the vicinity of the Waterford mill site. As pioneers moved westward, this path became a military road. It was abandoned in 1856 when the first bridge was built across the Cannon River in the young town of Northfield.
Carleton was founded in 1866, but it would be more than 50 years before the college purchased the land now known as the Arboretum, and in the meanwhile, part of the area on the north side of Highway 19 was used as a city dump.
The Early Years: Cowling, Stork, and Stewsie (1920-1955)
The first signs of interest in a college Arboretum date back to 1894, but land acquisition did not begin in earnest until the 1920s under President Donald Cowling. It is not completely clear why Cowling purchased nearly 800 acres of land at a time when college funds were scarce and support among students, faculty, and trustees was lacking, but Cowling may have been looking to allow for future expansions of campus. Farmland acquisition was also part of the motivation, as the Carleton Farm, started in 1914, was expanded throughout the 1920s. Perhaps the most important driving force behind the purchase of this land was the ambitious plan of Dr. Harvey Stork to create a landscape arboretum on a grand scale.
Harvey Stork joined the Carleton faculty in 1920 as a Professor of Botany and Natural History and quickly began to push for the creation of an arboretum. He envisioned creating a landscape arboretum modeled after Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. At this time, the University of Minnesota did not yet have an arboretum, and Stork enlisted the support of botanists in the Twin Cities who hoped to use the Carleton Arboretum for plant breeding experiments. Stork envisioned the Carleton Arboretum as a true arboretum (Latin: collection of trees), with 3,000 varieties of introduced trees and shrubs. He hoped to use this collection to breed new, hardy strains of ornamental plants that could grow in the harsh Minnesota climate. Stork never received sufficient funding to plant the extensive number of tree and shrub species he hoped for; at most, 400 varieties of trees and shrubs were planted in the Arb.
While Stork wrote that “the primary purpose of the College in administering the Arboretum is to develop a demonstration and testing ground for materials of landscape gardening,” he was also a skilled naturalist with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the native flora and fauna. In 1930, he constructed a 3.5-mile nature trail. This trail proceeded from the vicinity of the athletic fields north of West Gym to the old Waterford mill site along the west bank of the Cannon and returned along the wooded bluffs on the east bank, crossing the river twice on suspension bridges. From 1930 until 1941, Stork placed 35-70 numbered signs along the trail during the spring months and published a weekly self-guided tour. At its peak, upwards of 300 people took the tour each week. The suspension bridge near the Waterford mill was destroyed by flooding in the 1940s, cutting the loop in half and shortening the nature trail to an out-and-back on the west bank of the river.
A student Natural History Club resurrected the weekly trail guides in 1955, the same year as Stork’s retirement. The club continued to publish trail guides for several years after Stork’s retirement, even publishing some issues in the fall. The last self-guided tour was published May 26, 1957.
While Stork provided most of the ideas for the Arboretum, D. Blake Stewart, known as “Stewsie,” put Stork’s plans into practice. Stewsie came to Carleton in 1920 as Superintendent of Grounds, a position he held for over 50 years. Stewsie transplanted many woodland wildflowers into Stork’s “plant introduction garden” along Spring Creek. He also planted equally large numbers of trees, both as restorations of native forest and as introductions of new species. At the time of his retirement, Stewsie claimed to have planted 200,000 deciduous trees, 75,000 coniferous trees, and over 200,000 wildflowers into the Arb. While most of Stewsie’s introduced plants ultimately failed to survive in this climate, some have persisted and spread, prompting removal efforts.
The Carleton Farm (1914-1964)
In the first half of the 20th century, farming was paramount to the economy of southern Minnesota, and a large proportion of the population was employed in some aspect of crop and livestock production. Like all Midwestern colleges of that time, Carleton was expected to understand the business of farming to remain at the forefront of agricultural advances. To achieve these objectives, the Carleton Farm was formed in 1914. Following Cowling’s land purchases in the 1920s, the Arboretum covered 360 acres of wooded floodplain along the Cannon River and the farm covered 310 acres of land upland to the south and east, area now in prairie restoration.
The Carleton Farm cultivated row crops and raised riding horses, hogs, and dairy cattle. Eight miles of bridle trail were maintained in the farm and Arboretum land, and the area now occupied by Hillside Prairie was once used as a horse pasture. The Carleton Farm was most famous for its herd of 140 Holstein dairy cows, which ranked among the best dairy herds in the state. As Carleton became more centrally focused on the liberal arts and acquired a geographically diverse student population, interest in agriculture declined, and the Carleton Farm ceased operation in 1964, leasing the arable land to local farmers.
The Dark Ages (1955-1973)
Following Stork’s retirement in 1955 and the demise of the Carleton Farm in 1964, management and maintenance of the Arb came to a standstill. The major trails of the Arb had always been open to vehicles, and an increase in the number of cars following World War II brought more drive-through visitors than ever. In the absence of management, the Arb became a favorite party spot of local teenagers and Carleton students alike, and trash began to accumulate. The nature trail fell into disuse, and buckthorn (an invasive shrub) took over wooded areas. Finally, in 1969, the Arb trails were closed to vehicles, and two truckloads of beer bottles and cans were hauled out.
A New Vision (1973-present)
A new vision for the Carleton Arboretum began to emerge in 1973 as part of a land use planning seminar led by Dr. Ed Buchwald, Professor of Geology. Support for Stork’s vision of a museum of trees and shrubs had faded, and the emerging fields of ecology and conservation biology were beginning to demonstrate the need to protect and restore native ecosystems. A second seminar, led by Dr. Gary Wagenbach of the biology department in 1977, formulated a new statement of purpose for the Arb. The Carleton Arboretum, it said, “should be developed as a multi-use preservational/educational/recreational area, serving primarily the Carleton community, but also open to the public. To that end, it should be managed as a mosaic, protecting fragile plant community and animal habitats while allowing recreational use in other areas. The educational potential of the Arb, both for formal courses and individual study, must be developed.” In 1978, the position of Arboretum Director was established, and Buchwald was hired to oversee the execution of the new plan.
Restoration proceeded slowly at first. Floodplain fields were taken out of cultivation in 1970, 1982, and 1990, and some tree seedlings were planted in these areas. Small patches of Hillside Prairie were planted by Carleton students from 1978 until 1986, originally attempting to lay down sod harvested from local plots. While this technique was unsuccessful, the student efforts helped to highlight the difficulties of prairie restoration work and cemented a culture of student leadership and involvement in the Arboretum.
In 1991, Dr. Mark McKone, Professor of Biology, took over the Arb Director position, and Myles Bakke was hired for the newly created position of Arb Manager. McKone and Bakke began efforts to restore nearly 300 acres of land that had once been a part of the Carleton Farm but was now leased to local farmers. Large fields at the north end of the Arb were taken out of production in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1997, 2000, 2001, and 2008 and transitioned to forest restorations. Some of these areas were planted with tree nuts and seedlings, while others were left unplanted to study the natural process of forest succession. Major prairie restorations began in 1995. Bakke and his student crew collected seeds of 80-90 plant species from Carleton’s McKnight Prairie and other local prairie remnants for planting in the restorations.
In addition to prairie and forest restorations, McKone and Bakke implemented an invasive species eradication program. Buckthorn, honeysuckle, and Siberian elm are cut, and the stumps treated with herbicide to prevent regrowth. In some of the areas surrounding the prairie restorations with the worst buckthorn problems, both buckthorn and other trees are removed, and prairie seeds are planted beneath the remaining bur oaks to restore an oak savanna community. Prairie restoration work and invasive species eradication continue to be of great importance to Nancy Braker ’81 and Matt Elbert, who currently manage the Arboretum as Director and Manager respectively.
The information presented here is largely thanks to the immense time and research that Mark Luterra ’07 put into the comprehensive interpretive guide he created for a capstone project in the Environmental Studies program.
— Samara Kroeger ’21, for the Cole Student Naturalists