History of Maxwell Arboretum


Maxwell Arboretum heading



The Earl G. Maxwell Arboretum: A Brief History
On the Occasion of Its 35th Anniversary

The beauty of the area we now recognize as the Earl G. Maxwell Arboretum is the result of the vision, planning, and hard work of many people. People whose love of plants, especially trees, has afforded us a gift of horticultural splendor. Maxwell Arboretum is a gift of green vistas with shady paths, of majestic oaks, lindens and pines. It is a gift of glowing prairie in the fall, of stark, silent beauty in the winter. But the Arboretum's allure is also in the details: the small Chionodoxa blossom of early spring, the Liriodendron's oddly shaped leaf, and the Easter egg pearls of the Porcelain Vine. It is at once an educational resource, a jewel of Lincoln gardens, a place of retreat and solace in a world of stress and hustle.

Sixty years ago, Earl G. Maxwell began to plant trees here. A native of Indiana, Maxwell earned his master's degree at the University of Nebraska in 1915. A few years later, he became the first Extension Agent for Douglas County, a position he held for 12 years. From 1934 until his retirement in 1952, Maxwell served as the State Extension Forester at the University. He administered the Clark McNary Tree Distribution Program and during his tenure millions of trees were distributed and planted by farmers and ranchers across the state. With his encouragement and tireless dedication, shelterbelts throughout Nebraska worked to preserve our precious soils. Maxwell was interested in finding woody plants that could survive, even thrive, in Nebraska's harsh environment. To this end, and out of a basic love of and interest in trees, Earl Maxwell began to trial species at the site that now bears his name. In the end, Maxwell planted and evaluated over 100 species. As Wilbur Dasenbrock has noted, "The older specimens of Maxwell Arboretum continue to demonstrate the value of his selections."

 Earl G. Maxwell


Though a scientist and expert in arboriculture and forestry, Maxwell—”like many plantsmen—”had the heart of a poet. Indeed, he loved to recite from memory the poems of his favorite, "The Hoosier Poet," James Whitcomb Riley. Elvin Frolik has noted that Maxwell was a "true and wonderful naturalist, intertwining his love of nature with a love of poetry." Earl G. Maxwell died in November 1966 at the age of 82.The following year, two important steps were taken to insure appreciation for and continuation of Maxwell's work. First, the University's Board of Regents designated the original trial area as the Earl G. Maxwell Arboretum and second, a Campus Beautification Committee was formed, charged with improving the landscape of East Campus including the new arboretum.

On June 8, 1969, a formal dedication of the Earl G. Maxwell Arboretum was celebrated. Dr. Joseph Soshnic, a former Chancellor, presided; Dr. E.F. Frolik, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Home Economics, welcomed the guests; and Wesley Huenfeld of Aurora paid tribute to Maxwell. Harlan Hamernik, president of the Nebraska Association of Nurserymen, planted a 'Maxwell' honeylocust. Elmo Roper of New York City spoke eloquently on the importance of trees in our lives:

We have a quality of life in Nebraska which is hard to duplicate elsewhere. We start with good people, good soil, clean air and plenty of underground water. Now what we must focus our attention on is an increased quality of our lives generally; and in the quality life this arboretum is one important symbol.

But the quality life concept opens a multitude of visions. It means asking how much unspoiled nature we need to keep in order to nourish and revitalize our lives. It means conserving the open spaces we need to periodically refresh our lives—”where we can go to feel a little closer to God. In short, the problem of today and tomorrow is how to create an atmosphere where genius can flourish—”and be happy. And how can one be unhappy in an arboretum?

The decade of the 1970s brought renewed focus to and planting of the arboretum. During 1973-74, the Campus Beautification Committee, assisted by the Garden Club of Lincoln, established a display of native perennials and grasses south of C.Y. Thompson Library. Dr. Perry and the staff of the Department of Agronomy enhanced the site by planting a teaching prairie. Over the next two years, again with the help of the Garden Club, the Beautification Committee established a planting of columnar trees and installed other woody species throughout the Arboretum. Cultivars planted included —˜Doric', —˜Armstrong', and —˜Scanlon' maples; —˜Rancho' linden; —˜Wintergold', Royal Ruby', —˜White Candle', —˜Pink Spire', and —˜Van Eseltine' crabapples; as well as a number of pines.

In 1975, University of Nebraska President Durwood B. "Woody" Varner announced the formation of the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum (NSA). Maxwell Arboretum became the flagship site. The NSA's first curator was Dr. Robert D. Uhlinger, Chair of the Department of Horticulture. Joseph O. Young, who first suggested the idea of a statewide arboretum in 1961, served as curator from 1977 to 1980.By 1978, administration and planning of the Arboretum was growing. Chancellor Martin Massengale asked the following to bring their expertise to the recently formed Maxwell Arboretum Advisory Board: Walter Bagley, David Beyer, Wilbur Dasenbrock, Amy Melcher, James Stubbendieck, Craig Derekson, Kim Todd, and Joseph Young. They joined sitting members John Furrer, Robert Lommasson, Elton Lux, Sotero Salac, Richard Sutton, and Jay Thody. That year, Sutton and Todd, both Landscape Architects, conducted the first Landscape Analysis of Maxwell Arboretum.

At the end of the decade, a shift in the responsibility for planning and maintenance of the Arboretum was concluded with the signing of the "Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Earl G. Maxwell Arboretum Between the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum." The Memorandum outlines the "relationship, roles, and responsibilities" of the two parties. After the signing, the University's Grounds Department (now Landscape Services) assumed responsibility for the Arboretum including design, planting, and maintenance of the woody and herbaceous specimens. Labeling and record keeping were enhanced and the increasingly capable staff of the Grounds Department improved many aspects of the site.

By 1982, the University's Maxwell Arboretum Advisory Board was disbanded and reformed as the Friends of Maxwell Arboretum, a support group of University employees and public citizens. The Friends of Maxwell administers an account held in its name at the NU Foundation. Under the leadership of Wilbur "Bud" Dasenbrock, Director of Grounds, and Kim W. Todd, Campus Landscape Architect, Maxwell Arboretum flourished during the 1980s and into the 1990s.

Improved maintenance, a woodchip trail system, the installation of special plant collections and gardens, and the construction of site amenities mark this period of growth. In 1982, with support from the Northeast Kiwanis Club, a footbridge was constructed spanning the Arboretum "creek." In 1997, a more elaborate and permanent bridge was installed. Maxwell Arboretum received a formal entrance in 1983 with the erection of the Karl Loerch Gazebo (dedicated April 23, 1984). Designed by Kim Todd and Chris Beardslee, the twin gazebos remain a favorite spot for Arboretum visitors. A plaque set in a piece of petrified wood from the Niobrara River recognizes the contributions of Loerch (Maxwell's successor as Nebraska Extension Forester from 1953 to 1970). Also built during this period was the Vine Arbor with its collection of trailing, clinging, and twining vines that bloom from spring to late fall with berry interest throughout the winter. The last feature constructed during the "building boom" was the Perin Porch. Research undertaken at the beginning of the decade revealed the early history of East Campus, including the stewardship of S.W. Perin, Superintendent of the "Farm Campus" as it was then known. The site of the Perin home on the Holdrege Street frontage was determined and in 1991 a replica of the house's front porch, designed by Kevin Herr, was constructed and surrounded with period plantings. In 2002, this portion of the Holdrege Street frontage was officially added to Maxwell Arboretum by action of the Board of Regents.

During this period of growth in the Arboretum, numerous trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, and spring flowering bulbs were added. Labeling and recordkeeping of plant material received much needed attention. Among the special collections installed during the 1980s were the Dorothea Plum Viburnum Collection; the Hosta Collection, thanks to the continuous donations from Gary Jones, a local hosta enthusiast and grower; the Rhododendron Collection; and the Milton L. Flack Lilac Collection, with the support of Lola Flack.

In 1987, Maxwell Arboretum became part of the newly created University of Nebraska-Lincoln Botanical Garden and Arboretum (UNLBGA), an entity of the Landscape Services Department (formerly the Grounds Department). As such, it joined other designated gardens and plantings on both City and East Campus.

The Perry Prairie was moved from its original location south of C.Y. Thompson Library to the north edge of the Arboretum in 1982. A labeled teaching display of native grasses and forbs was laid out the north side of the new prairie. Many of the plants were grown from seed collected by Mark McVicker, then Campus Landscape Manager, in the Pine Ridge area of Nebraska. In 2001, this display was removed as the first step in the installation of a new, more comprehensive teaching resource.

The 1990s saw a committment to the Arboretum as an educational horticulture resource. In 1995, the first Gardeners' Gala was held at Maxwell Arboretum. An annual event, the Galas have featured speakers, tours, and demonstrations and always draw an enthusiastic crowd. In addition to the annual Gala, Landscape Services offered many tours and lectures in the Arboretum throughout the decade.

In 1990, with help from the Lincoln Garden Club, a new perennial bed was established just east of the Dairy Store. The steep grade is supported by a plastic honeycomb to stabilize the soil. In 1994, the planting was dedicated as the Fleming Slope, in recognition of Lincoln's great trio of plant breeding brothers, James, Robert, and David Fleming. The previous year had seen the installation of the Jeanne Vierk Yeutter Garden, along with Fleming Slope the Arboretum's perennial flower showcase. The Yeutter Garden, consisting of a planted berm and an oval rock garden ring, are endowed by Clayton Yeutter, former Secretary of Agriculture. Yeutter and Fleming attract visitors all season long, especially with their close proximity to the Dairy Store.

On October 27, 1997, Maxwell Arboretum, along with the rest of campus and the city of Lincoln, was hit hard by a 13" wet snowfall. With leaves still on the trees, many species, both new and those originally planted by Maxwell, were devastated by the "storm of the century." Clean up began immediately and over the next three winters, under the leadership of Jeff Culbertson and Renee Rasmussen, pruning and removal of trees was undertaken. A great loss was the large White Pine just east of the Gazebo. While many scars from the storm of '97 are still visible and some trees that were expected to rebound eventually had to be removed, the Arboretum has retained its fine canopy.

As the decade grew to a close, a project was undertaken to accurately map the special shrub collections of Maxwell Arboretum. Over the years, removal, addition, and relocation of plant material had rendered existing maps nearly useless. When completed, maps of the Lilac, Rhododendron, and Viburnum Collections will be available to the public. Maps are also planned for the Hosta Collection, Fleming Slope, Yeutter Garden, the Vine Arbor, and the various bulb plantings in the Arboretum.

As we celebrate the 35th Anniversary of the Earl G. Maxwell Arboretum and honor the man who sixty years ago began to plant trees here, it's incumbent upon us to take the time to remember all those who have given of themselves to make the beauty that we all enjoy today. From University administrators to Landscape Services student employees to the generous donations of time, money, and plants from the people of Lincoln, an entire community has come together to create a place of learning, reflection, and wonder.

The Arboretum continues to attract visitors not just from the University and Lincoln, but also from around the world. Friends come to meet for lunch, family photographs are posed for, and frequent tours are well attended. School children come to collect leaves and get their first lessons in arboriculture; couples come to take their wedding vows in the presence of friends, family, and towering, watchful oaks. An old man comes early in the dawn light to perform the subtle movements of Tai Chi. Indeed, how can one be unhappy in an arboretum?

As we head into the 21st century, we set our goals for the next 35 years with enthusiasm and dreams for renewed dedication and endless possibilities. And we look back at those who came before with a smile and a nod of thanks.

Emily Levine
Former Maxwell Arboretum Grounds Supervisor