As the spring semester draws to a close, Vassar’s campus reflects new beginnings. Blooming all around campus are more than 230 species of trees that call Vassar home. From elms to oaks, magnolias to maples, the arboretum is flooded in green. Campus did not always look this way, though. As hard as it may be for current students to imagine, Vassar was nearly treeless at its founding. But Matthew Vassar’s vision of campus was not a barren one, and thus, he devoted himself to transforming the landscape, one tree at a time. Beginning with the Class of 1868, a new tradition took hold to change the very ground Vassar rests upon. Each year, the sophomore class claims an existing tree or plants a new one, making their mark on the campus’s environment.
I dove deep down the rabbit hole that is Vassar’s Archives and Special Collections Library to better understand this century-old tradition. In 1959, reporter for The Poughkeepsie New Yorker, Helen Myers, detailed the history of tree planting festivities at Vassar. “The Class of 1867 did the first planting,” wrote Myers. Vassar’s first graduates commemorated their time at school by planting ivy on Main Building as a part of their Class Day activities (the Class Day tradition was sadly retired in 1954). The ivy promptly died, and thus the second graduating Class of 1868 planted the very first class tree, a swamp white oak that rested along Main Drive.
Previous tree ceremonies have seen students dressing up in costume, putting on plays, reading poems and singing class marching songs. There was an air of mischief and strangeness about many of the early ceremonies. Myers writes: “As early as 1884, ‘The Vassar Miscellany’ was saying that the sophomore tree ceremonies should be secret rites, observed only by the class concerned. They did become secret in the next decade, with the inevitable result. The freshman did their best to find out where the ceremonies were to be conducted and to break them up if possible.” Some other ceremonies were not so secret. “One morning, at 4 o’clock,” writes Myers, “the entire campus was aroused by a flash of red fire…” Members of the Class of 1902 were dancing around their tree in bright red robes, with flashing swords and gleaming helmets. This disturbance caused quite the stir among faculty, who demanded the happenings of all future tree ceremonies be posted on college bulletins at least 24 hours prior to them occurring.
100 years ago in 1923, members of the Class of 1925 were preparing to plant their class tree. They claimed a Norway spruce located south of “students” (which I deciphered to be in front of the Deece). Unfortunately, the tree seems to have died sometime in the last 100 years. But thankfully the Class of 1925’s tree and ceremony were well-documented. One photo from special collections, pictured below, shows a sophomore member of the Class of 1925 in front of the class tree. Notes written on the back of the photo describe the ceremony. “Harriet Taylor, our class president, read us a lovely poem written for us by Miss Potts. Miss Potts would rise early in the mornings to practice our marching song! Margaret Davidson designed the owl and Lita Garrison the seal.” I confirmed through “The Vassarion” (the Vassar yearbook) that Taylor and Davidson were members of the Class of 1925. Miss Potts was revealed to be Abbie Findlay Potts, to whom this edition of the Vassarion is dedicated, most likely an employee of the school.
This next photo gives more insight into what the ceremony looked like 100 years ago. Pictured in front of what is currently the Deece, the Class of 1925 is gathered in costume performing some sort of play. Written on the back of this photo were the names of the women in the photo, including mention that Margaret Davidson made the dragon costume pictured in the center. There is a brief written description of the events, including this remark: “Really the best ceremonies given in years!”
This image pictures the Class of 1907’s tree ceremony. Here, the class gathers in a circle around the tree, performing some sort of ritual with a wreath of flowers.
The Class of 2025’s tree is a flowering dogwood, chosen by the students themselves. Also known by its scientific name, cornus florida, the flowering dogwood is one of the most beautiful trees native to the northeast corner of the country. Blooming with delicate white or pink petals each spring, the tree showcases lush green leaves in the summer and striking scarlet foliage in autumn. Reaching nearly 25 feet in height, the tree is often planted for decoration due to its picturesque colors and attractive shape. The flowering dogwood is deciduous and will thus contribute to Vassar’s annual blanket of red, orange and yellow leaves in the fall. Students can find the species already populated across campus, such as near Pratt House or clustered in a WWII memorial in front of the Deece.
Now you may be wondering: What does the sophomore class have in store for this year’s ceremony? Well, the Class of 2025 have been hard at work planning for the festivities, which will take place on Friday, April 28 (which is Arbor Day, the national holiday for celebrating and planting trees). The Class of ’25’s flowering dogwood will be planted on Chapel lawn, a location chosen by the Class of ’25 Tree Planting Committee. Festivities will take place from 3 to 6 p.m. with the official planting ceremony commencing at 4 p.m. Matthew Vassar’s famous spade (used when laying the first cornerstone of Vassar’s foundation) will be used again this year, as per tradition, to shovel dirt onto our tree. President Elizabeth Bradley will briefly share opening remarks followed by statements given by each member of the Class of ’25’s tree planting committee. To kickoff Founder’s Day weekend, enjoy an afternoon of lawn games, ice cream and a scavenger hunt, exploring previous class trees across campus.
Committee member Clio Maya-Johnson ’25 notes the significance of the scavenger hunt: “We thought of organizing a scavenger hunt among past class trees to give current students an opportunity to tap into this living piece of Vassar history, while paying homage to the playful side of it all.” The scavenger hunt will commence at 3 p.m. and end with the opening ceremonies at 4 p.m. “A trove of memories lie beneath our feet on Vassar’s campus, literally: A time capsule for each class buried between the roots of their tree,” says Maya-Johnson, referring to the box of mementos that is buried under each class tree. This year’s ceremony will give members of the Class of 2023 the opportunity to think about what mementos to include in their capsule, which is to be buried under their tree during Senior Week.
As reported by The Miscellany News, by 1915 the tree ceremonies had “increased in importance until now they are regarded as the most momentous and sacred ceremony in the life of a class.” This year’s ceremony has hopes of bringing back some of the mystery and excitement fostered by tree planting’s past.