Last week the Trysting Tree was named a State Heritage Tree and Special Collections & Archives Research Center director Larry Landis spoke at the dedication ceremony. For those of you who weren’t able to make it, here’s what you missed! Pretend like the wind is blowing and you can see the tree out of the corner of your eye…
During its 144 years as Oregon’s land grant institution, Oregon State University has had many strong traditions and iconic symbols. One of her most well-known symbols and traditions has been the Trysting Tree.
This tree, a Gray Poplar — not considered to be a highly valuable tree by most arborists — was a popular gathering spot for couples from the late 19th century (soon after Oregon Agricultural College moved to its present location in 1889) through the first half of the 20th century. The tree has been idolized in poetry and song. OSU’s golf course is named for the tree. A conference room in the CH2M Hill Alumni Center, a meeting room in Weatherford Hall, and a lounge in the Memorial Union all carry the Trysting Tree name. And the tree is the source of many family stories, anecdotes, and yes, legends.
But what is the backstory of the tree? Who planted it and when?
Some accounts state that George Coote, an early horticulture faculty member and superintendent of the college grounds, planted the tree in the early 1880s. I have doubts about this story, as Coote was not appointed to the college faculty until 1888, although he had lived in the Corvallis area since 1877. My guess is that it may have been planted by a previous landowner prior to the college’s acquisition of this parcel as the original college farm in 1871 – a February 1960 Oregon Stater article indicates that many “old-timers” believed the tree was one of several gray poplars planted on the original donation land claim. It is also possible that someone else associated with the college planted it. Another account states that originally two gray poplars that had been planted, but that one was cut down due to damaged limbs.
Regardless, by the late 1890s the tree had become a romantic gathering spot for students. Despite admonitions from College President Thomas Gatch about this type of activity, as well as the installation of arc lights on Benton Hall’s cupola, the tree remained a popular destination. President Gatch is credited with giving the tree its “Trysting Tree” moniker, and the Class of 1901 formally named it as such.
For the next 60 years or so many students experienced their first kiss, were pinned, or became engaged under the tree’s expansive branches. It was also focal point for the many picnics, reunions and other events that were held in the area.
As the tree and its popularity grew, its presence in the culture of the college also grew. The 1908 Orange, the predecessor to today’s Beaver yearbook (and actually published in 1907), included a poem in tribute to the tree. Homer Maris, a graduate student at OAC in the late 1910s, continued this literary tradition with the writing, in 1917, of the poem that would become alma mater, Carry Me Back, in 1919.
By 1960, the Trysting Tree was suffering from disease, rotting from the inside out. By 1980 this was becoming visibly apparent. In a sad, but celebratory, ceremony on September 27, 1986 (not 1987 as the nomination states), the Trysting Tree was cut down after it had been eulogized and given a toast with sparkling apple cider. Fortunately OSU had the foresight to anticipate the removal the Trysting Tree – cuttings had been taken from the tree and propagated under the guidance of horticulture professor Jack Stang, so that a genetically identical descendant would carry on the Trysting Tree tradition. Propagating the tree in this manner had been proposed in 1960. Trysting Tree II was planted on October 15, 1982 by the OSU Mothers’ Club.
In 1988, the tree was honored yet again, when OSU’s golf course, just across the Willamette River north of Highway 34, was named the Trysting Tree Golf Course.
It is appropriate – some would say long overdue – that today we recognize and honor the legacy of the original Trysting Tree and the current Trysting Tree II as an Oregon Heritage Tree.
I’d like to close with this last stanza of the poem that appeared in the 1908 Orange:
Long may’st thou live, thou worthy friend,
Thou dear old Trysting Tree;
Long may thy branches proudly wave
Majestic’ly and free,
To mind us of those happy days
Spent at old O.A.C.