History of Maxwell Arboretum

Maxwell Arboretum heading


The Earl G. Maxwell Arboretum: A Brief History
On the Occasion of Its 50th 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 riches. Maxwell Arboretum is a gift of green vistas with shady paths, of majestic oaks, lindens, and pines, all overlooked by a mighty cottonwood. It is a gift of glowing prairie in the low sunlight of 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, or the exfoliating bark of a rare shrub. The details of buds swelling and breaking, fruits forming and ripening, pollinators coming and going. Maxwell Arboretum is at once an educational resource, a jewel of Lincoln gardens, a place of retreat and solace in a world of stress and hustle.

Eighty years ago, Earl G. Maxwell began to plant trees here. A native of Indiana and graduate of Purdue University, 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 twelve years. He then returned to Lincoln and 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 plants at the site that now bears his name. In the end, he planted and evaluated more than one hundred species. As former director of UNL Landscape Services Wilbur “Bud” 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, James Whitcomb Riley, "The Hoosier Poet.” Dean of Agriculture Elvin Frolik once 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 ensure appreciation for and continuation of Maxwell's work. First, in response to a letter written by Horticulture and Forestry undergraduate David Doeschot, the University's Board of Regents designated the original plantings as the Earl G. Maxwell Arboretum. Doeschot was president of the Horticulture and Forestry Club, with whom the seed had been planted, fittingly, by the renowned university plant breeder Dermot Coyne to preserve Maxwell’s trial area and name it in his honor. Doeschot’s letter noted the number and variety of the trees that Maxwell planted and its writer knew that the area was used by students not only for research but also as a respite from their studies. Joseph O. Young, chair of the Department of Horticulture and Forestry and later founding visionary and the first curator of the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, wholeheartedly supported the idea and passed the letter on to Dean Frolik. From Frolik the plan continued on to NU Chancellor Clifford Hardin who also backed it. Finally, the proposal landed with the Board of Regents who approved it in June 1967. The Earl G. Maxwell Arboretum was a reality.  
The second step taken at that time was one that ensured that the area would continue to receive the attention it needed and well as additional plantings to guarantee its future growth: the formation of the Campus Beautification Committee, charged with improving the landscape of East Campus including the new arboretum.

Two years later, on June 8, 1969, a formal dedication of the Earl G. Maxwell Arboretum was celebrated. Former Chancellor Joseph Soshnic presided, Dean Frolik 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, a cultivar introduced by Plumfield Nurseries in Fremont. Elmo Roper gave the keynote address and he 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 in the arboretum. During 1973-74, the Campus Beautification Committee, assisted by the Garden Club of Lincoln, created a display of native perennials and grasses south of C.Y. Thompson Library. Prof. L.J. 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). Arbor Lodge and Maxwell Arboretum became the flagship sites. Joseph O. Young, who first suggested the idea of a statewide arboretum in 1961, served as its curator from 1977 to 1980. By 1978, administration and planning of the Maxwell Arboretum was growing: UNL 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 management 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.

In 1982, the University's Maxwell Arboretum Advisory Board was disbanded and reformed as the Friends of Maxwell Arboretum (FOMA), a support group comprised of University employees and local citizens. Under the leadership of 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 and development 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 fruiting interest throughout the winter. With built-in benches and a seating area that acted as an outdoor classroom, the Vine Arbor served as both a teaching site and lunchtime favorite.

The last feature constructed during the "building boom" was the Perin Porch. Research undertaken at the beginning of the 1980s brought to light much of 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. A formal dedication of the Porch was held in 1996, bringing Perin descendants from around the country. 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 generous 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.

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 on 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 planned installation of a new, more comprehensive teaching resource.

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

In 1990, with help from the Lincoln Garden Club, a new perennial bed was established just east of the Dairy Store. Its 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 respected trio of plant-breeding brothers, James, Robert, and David Fleming. The previous year had seen the installation of the Jeanne Vierk Yeutter Garden, consisting of a planted berm and an oval rock garden ring. This herbaceous perennial garden is endowed by Clayton Yeutter, former United States Secretary of Agriculture. The Yeutter and Fleming gardens attract visitors all season long, especially with their close proximity to the Dairy Store.

While Maxwell Arboretum was utilized by students even before its official designation, and the Horticulture, Entomology, and other departments used it for teaching, the 1990s saw a commitment to the Arboretum as an educational horticulture resource by Landscape Services and FOMA. In 1995, the first Gardeners' Gala was held at Maxwell Arboretum. An annual event, the Galas featured speakers, tours, and demonstrations, and always drew an enthusiastic crowd. In addition to the annual Gala, Landscape Services offered many tours and lectures in the Arboretum throughout the decade.

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 specimens, both new and those originally planted by Maxwell, were devastated by this "storm of the century." Clean up began immediately and over the next three winters, under the leadership of Campus Manager Jeff Culbertson and Area Supervisor Renee Rasmussen, pruning and removal of trees was undertaken by Landscape Services. While 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.

In the early 2000s, a project was undertaken to accurately inventory and map the special shrub collections—Lilac, Rhododendron, and Viburnum—of Maxwell Arboretum. Over the years, removal, addition, and relocation of plant material had rendered existing maps nearly useless. Maps and inventories were also made of the Hosta Collection, Fleming Slope, Yeutter Garden, the Vine Arbor, and the various bulb plantings in the Arboretum. A complete inventory of all the woody plants in the arboretum was also conducted and landscape base maps were updated.
During this time signage was a priority, with scores of new label posts installed for trees and special shrub, perennial, and bulb signage designed, manufactured, and installed.

After a fifteen-year hiatus, plantings began again around 2010. In addition to individual specimens, trees and shrubs were added to the following collections: Magnolia, Horsechestnut/Buckeye, Lilac, Hydrangea, and Birch. The Hosta Collection, which was formerly installed in the larger Viburnum Collection, was relocated to an area under some of Earl Maxwell’s large old oaks where turf establishment had been difficult. The Magdalene Pfister Iris Appreciation Garden, which had previously been located elsewhere on campus, was relocated to the north end of the Arboretum’s Vine Arbor. And two new collections were added to the Vine Arbor area: a Dwarf Conifer Collection and a small collection of Heuchera (Coralbells). The Vine Arbor itself was redesigned and rebuilt some years after having been damaged by a fallen tree and many new vines were installed. In the fall of 2012, planting of two dozen trees—ranging from Abies to Zelkova—was undertaken by Agronomy and Horticulture professor Kim Todd’s Landscape Management class. Fleming Slope and the Yeutter Garden also received a number of new perennials.

In 2015, a new pedestrian brick wall and column entryway to campus was built off of Holdrege Street. It leads one across the Arboretum and onto the Old Mall. Herbaceous plants grace the front-facing side of the wall and new oaks have been added to the allée of trees which themselves lead into the old oaks on the Mall.

A much larger construction project is in the planning stages. The original stabilization of the “creek” was done on a limited budget and consisted of lining the creek bed walls with vertical railroad ties. Over time, the ties have begun to rot. While the “creek” follows the course of an old drainage, at this time it is simply the open stretch of a storm sewer. The Maxwell Creek renovation project will dramatically alter the east side of the Arboretum, but the problem provides an opportunity to create an entirely new landscape feature that will not only look better but will afford students and the public a learning resource centered on wetland plants and storm water management.

Because an arboretum is an outdoor museum, interpretation and signage is vital. In 2007, the UNL Gardens program developed a web site focused on Maxwell Arboretum (http://unlgardens.unl.edu/. Visitors can access maps, inventories, and plant information of many of the major collections, a bloom-time chart with data starting in 2015, historical material, and more. Landscape Services completed GIS mapping of the trees in 2016 and, with support from the Friends of Maxwell Arboretum, plans are underway in 2017 to begin to install interpretive signage for collections and special features.

In the spring of 2013, the Friends held their first semiannual Arboretum event. The following year Landscape Services, UNL Garden Friends, and the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture joined in sponsoring these popular events, Spring in the Arboretum and the Fall Festival. Local organizations, both public and private, have booths and displays; local foods are on hand; trees are planted; and educational activities for children are featured.

As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Earl G. Maxwell Arboretum and honor the man who eighty years ago began to plant trees here, it's incumbent upon us to take the time to remember and thank all those who have given of themselves to make possible the beauty that we 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 and nurture 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. Over the years, friends have come to meet for lunch, family photographs have been posed for, and tours have been well-attended. People flock to the lilac collection in the spring. School children have come to collect leaves and get their first lessons in arboriculture; couples come to make their wedding vows in the presence of friends, family, and towering, watchful oaks. A man has come early in the dawn light to perform the subtle movements of Tai Chi. Baltimore Orioles and Great Horned Owls have nested in the treetops. Lovers have walked hand in hand down its shaded paths. Indeed, as Elmo Roper asked so many years ago, how can one be unhappy in an arboretum?

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

Emily Levine
UNL Gardens Project

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