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Ira's Acres
Clearing in the wilderness to park in the city,
210 years in the life of the UVM Green

by Kit Anderson '76 G'81

Ira Allen promised the University of Vermont fifty acres and 4,000 pounds. The money never materialized, but he delivered on the land, including the seven-acre hilltop parcel where his bronze figure stands today, eyes downcast, seemingly in contemplation of the grass, tulips, or snow at his feet. Back in 1791, there was little more than Allen’s intentions to suggest that his rough, pine-covered plot of land would become the symbolic heart of the campus — the UVM Green.

At the time, Burlington was a frontier town, Vermont, mostly forest. The native Abenaki had been pushed out of the area, leaving no clue to how they viewed this particular piece of land. We do know that as soon as Allen deeded it to the brand new state of Vermont, it became highly significant. Over the years, the UVM Green would become the scene of celebrations and confrontations, of public and private life. Trees and sheep, fountains and fences would come and go, reflecting changing attitudes and styles. Today’s urban park holds reminders of a rich and varied heritage.

Nothing was easy in the university’s early decades. Why should the Green be any different? In 1801, just ten years after he donated land to start UVM, Allen threatened to tear down the first structures if they were built on the portion he had designated for use as a green. He wrote to university trustees: “I have observed that you are about to erect buildings on lands that have been appropriated for a public Green, to contribute both to convenience, elegance and use of the University of Vermont…” And the General made it clear in closing that “I shall use every influence in my power…to remove any buildings that are or may be erected on said lands” — Allen believed a proper college needed a proper open area. The towering white pines weren’t part of the plan either. So they were cut and some of the wood was used to construct the first college building — facing the Green.

Like many of you, I’ve walked through the Green countless times on the way to classes. On a sunny day, it’s an idyllic spot for a study break — Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks to the west, the striking architecture of University Row to the east. All told, how many burgers, burritos, and egg rolls have been consumed here?

Lunch is easy. Fewer of you know the Green via the suffering of weekly dendrology quizzes. I’m still haunted by the 1970s’ memories — standing in silence, desperately trying to conjure memories of various maple leaf shapes or the difference between red and pin oak buds. I proudly carry on the tradition of this particular torture; in recent years, I’ve joined the ranks of the professors who use the trees as teaching tools.

I’ve also widened my focus on this place, bringing the perspective of a cultural geographer with an interest in landscape, place, and human-plant interactions. Students in my classes have explored these topics with me, and I’m grateful for their contributions. With their help, along with historical documents and interviews, the story of the Green is coming together, but it is far from complete.

Home to bears, sheep, students
Early New England greens were clearings in the vast forests, common lands that served as open centers at the heart of new communities. Open, however, did not mean manicured. Looking at today’s smooth lawns, every tree surrounded by a precise circle of mulch, it is hard to imagine the UVM Green in its early days — a ragged sprawl of pine stump and weeds. Domestic livestock and all manner of wildlife, including the occasional bear, wandered through at least until the 1820s.

A bit rough perhaps, but an important clearing to the little frontier town proud of its college on the hill. On July 4, 1811, five hundred people from Burlington gathered under a huge tent set up on the Green for a community oxen roast to celebrate Independence Day.

It wasn’t always so harmonious. Allen’s early objections would be the first of many disagreements regarding what was appropriate for this land. Students didn’t like a new fence, burned it, and faced a fine for their rebellion. When faculty attempted to sell hay cut on the grounds, students thought otherwise and scattered what was gathered.

Later, when the Green earned a reputation among farmers as the best pasture in town, students weren’t happy about livestock grazing on their commons. A legendary feud developed with one persistent sheep farmer (reported, perhaps with some exaggeration, in the 1894 Ariel). In spite of repeated warnings, it seems, the farmer brought his flock back to graze on the Green. One morning the town and campus awoke to the bleating of the entire flock bound together with rope. Round two: students hauled one particularly unfortunate sheep up into the Old Mill bell tower. When the bells rang, it jumped in fright to the roof, and as rescuers approached leapt to its death. Round three: students dug a trench and buried the entire flock up to their necks.

Protests on the Green have a long tradition. Fences, livestock, bans on cigar smoking, laws on marijuana smoking, South African apartheid, campus diversity, and the Vietnam War are just a few of the issues that have been debated with voices, plywood, and spray paint.

Making it beautiful
UVM students also led the first major effort to transform the Green into a park. When the university faced financial difficulties in the 1830s, taking care of the grounds was not high on anyone's list. Enter Alvin Twing, an enterprising student who led the class of 1837 in a major landscaping effort. They cleared stumps, filled old cellar holes, and raised $700 to build a sturdy fence. Twing, a blacksmith by trade, made turnstiles that controlled access to the fenced area.

The 19th century was a time of dramatic growth for UVM and Burlington. Vermont’s forests were cut to make way for farms, yielding vast quantities of timber and securing Burlington’s place as a major lumbering port. The university expanded with new buildings along the east and north sides of the Green. From their rooms
on the top floor of Old Mill, students described panoramic vistas. Visitors arriving by steamboat in the bustling city could see the impressive university on the hill. Gradually, the dirt road linking UVM and Burlington filled in with homes.

With students living on one side of the Green and Burlington families on the other, the space was a versatile commons of many uses during this era, both playground and community meeting place. After the Civil War, a woman whose home faced the Green looked out to see young men playing an odd new game brought back from the South. They called it baseball.

The elm era
As the New England forests receded, and settlements grew beyond the frontier stage, new ideas to beautify towns, cities, and colleges were introduced by John Downing and Frederick Law Olmstead. The latter was famed for his work as a landscape architect on projects such as New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace. Perhaps not as well known, his firm designed the original walkways around the Billings Library.

The treeing of the Green began with several university presidents and a few graduating classes adding informal plantings of pines, cedars, and tamaracks during the mid-19th century. Serious progress was made when students stepped into the picture again with a drive to beautify the campus as part of the national centennial celebrations in 1876. They planted double rows of American elms along walks and streets, creating formal allées. As these stately, vase-shaped trees matured, they formed regular columns of straight trunks, topped by a high arching canopy. The city was planting elms along its streets, too, so that eventually college and community were linked.

By the turn of the century, the UVM Green was considered one of the most attractive college parks in New England, promoted as a must-see for Burlington visitors. By then, the man-made decoration of the Ira Allen and General Lafayette statues, an ornate fountain, and lighting had been added. Graduations began to be held on the Green, and new traditions, such as robing Ira Allen (presumably his first college graduate’s gown) and planting ivy at the base of Billings were started.

Year-round, the Green was an important site for university and community life. The annual Winter Festival included snow and ice sculptures on Green. And during the early years the erstwhile Kakewalk event sometimes spilled out of the gymnasium (now Royall Tyler Theatre) onto the Green. In early spring, the grassy area attracted newly arrived Italian immigrant women, who came up from town in buggies to harvest dandelion greens, assisted by students eager to weed the lawn.

An eclectic collection
The Green has a very different character today. Though still rich in beauty, the land’s role as a gathering place for the university or Burlington community has largely vanished. The last big commotion I can remember was in 1991, when students built a shantytown dubbed Diversity University.

What happened? First, sprawl happened. By 1960, nobody lived next door to the Green any more. Waterman replaced smaller buildings on the west. Dorms were moved to Redstone Campus and to the east, away from the Green. The new library replaced Billings as a center of academic life. Sports were played on the far reaches of campus — Centennial Field, Gutterson, Archie Post. Graduation itself moved to the soccer field.

Then came Dutch elm disease. The elms that formed a tunnel down College Street, framing the annual toboggan race from campus to the frozen lake, the elms that graced the UVM Green in many a hand-tinted postcard from beautiful Burlington, died. By 1972, when Dick Streeter arrived as UVM’s new grounds manager, only thirty of the more than one-hundred elms were still standing. By the 1980s, they were down to six. Today, there are two.

Determined not to repeat history, Streeter developed a replanting scheme focused on diversifying the collection so that it would be less vulnerable to an epidemic. He chose native and exotic species that could survive Vermont’s climate. Along with a range of natives like maples, oaks, ashes and hickories, he tried out tulip poplars and some disease resistant hybrid elms and added many crabapples (the dominant Green species by sheer numbers) for spring color. My favorite among the exotics is the Dawn Redwood, a deciduous conifer native to China that Streeter transplanted to the Green. Discovered in the fossil record in 1941, this tree with the satisfying scientific name Metasequoia glyptostroboides was later found growing in the wild. The Arnold Arboretum in Boston collected seeds, but the trees are still relatively rare.

The Green today is an eclectic collection of trees and shrubs, some arranged in patterns, like the crabapples around the fountain in the center. Others are widely dispersed — the looming firs and spruces, especially beautiful in winter, near Main Street. High above, a few awkward elm branches and scraggly white pines bring to mind earlier eras. The Ice Storm of 1998 hit the Green hard, but evidence of the resilience of nature and skill of UVM’s grounds crews blooms each May just as students are burrowing into finals.

Lessons of landscape
During the last 200 years, the UVM Green has evolved from an opening in the wilderness to a treasured oasis in a built-up city. What will it be in the 21st century?

One proposal, floated by Stephanie Kaza, professor in the Environmental Program, was to turn the whole campus into an arboretum. Though that idea has not been adopted as a campus-wide plan, Plant and Soil Science Professor Mark Starrett keeps a list of the species to be added when trees are replaced on the Green, which won’t be seeing any additional plantings since it has been declared full. Starrett’s list was compiled with an eye toward building the teaching collection for students of dendrology and horticulture.

Tiny metal disks on the Green’s trees have a number linking each one to a database that gives the species name and details about its health and maintenance. It’s a subtle clue to the plants’ dual role contributing to both the beauty and the brains of campus. In ethnobotany classes, for instance, we gather round the trees to discuss how the Abenaki, early settlers, and people in other parts of the world have related to these plants. Ginkgo, sugar maple, cedar, lilac, spruce, oak — each has stories about its value as food, fiber, medicine, or symbol.

Like college professors, college landscapes teach lessons and express values. As we take a hand in the future of the UVM Green, it’s my hope that we’ll shape a space that reflects today’s ideals of environment and community. As the Green continues to evolve, the university would do well to learn from the significant role of past students such as the enterprising Alvin Twing or those who planted the beloved elms.

Like their 19th-century counterparts, today's UVM students are rich in ideas and energy. They come to me full of inspiration from classes on ecodesign, permaculture, natural history, sustainable agriculture, herbalism, and traditional ecological knowledge. They want to transform the campus, demonstrate low-maintenance plantings, native species, roof-top gardening, wildlife plantings, and natural communities of Vermont. They want an arboretum. They want outdoor meeting places. They want to invite the larger community, especially children, to come and learn. In fact, they want to reinforce a sense of home on this campus, a home that reflects new ideas of how we all can live in this world as a community. What better place to start than on Ira Allen’s acres?

Kit Anderson ’76 G’81 returned to Vermont in 1996 after completing her doctorate in geography at Louisiana State University. She has taught in UVM’s Environmental Program and wishes to thank the students in her class “Trees and Human Cultures” for getting her started on research about the Green. Particular credit is due to Devon Purdy ’00, who compiled much of the background behind this article.

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