On Wednesday afternoon an email was sent out from President Maxey that put a lot of people on campus in shock. The Bittle Tree that currently stands on Roanoke College’s front quad has to be removed. After being hit by lightning several times as well as being infected with disease the tree has reached its end. For years the school has tried to do its best to extend the lifespan of the tree from chopping off the damaged canopy to aerating the soil, but alas there is only so much that could done.
Dr. Mark Miller, the college historian, could give great context to our famous tree. The Bittle Tree was planted, with many other trees, in the 1850s by David Bittle. The trees that were planted in that era were collected from the area around the college. It was a joint effort between President Bittle and the students of Roanoke at the time to make the front quad an arborarium. The boys of the school tended the trees and created a fence around the quad to make the area a type of sanctuary and protect it from town animals.
Over the years the trees of the original era died and had to be removed. In 1990 there were still 5 surviving but “on by one they all went down” said Dr. Miller until only the Bittle Tree remained standing. It wasn’t until about the last twenty years though that the tree became a shrine on campus. There has been a wave of starting new traditions, like the kicking post and the college seal, that haven’t always been around and the sacredness of the Bittle Tree is one of those traditions.
The tree has been on watch for several years. While it may look fine, the tree has to come down. A large limb fell from the tree a few years ago highlighting its demise. More recently core samples were taken that showed part of the tree has now become hollow.
Dr. Dave Scaer, in the Modern Language Department, has been very active in adding to the canopy of Roanoke College. It was about thirteen years ago when environmental science and environmental policy groups took interest in the trees on campus. Not only are they looking to add a variety of species to the campus but also progeny of trees of historical significance.
The legacy of the Bittle Tree will live on and still does. The past three school presidents, David Gring, Dr. Sabine O’Hara, and Michael Maxey have all planted progeny of the Bittle Tree. All of these trees are planted on that side of the quad within view of the original tree. President Maxey’s, which was planted during founders day last year is still huddled up in a green tube next to the large tree and will be unveiled at the Bittle Tree ceremony. That side of the quad has become a “President’s corner” in some ways because not only does it have those three trees but also a progeny of a tree from Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello. Dr. Scear describes this side as truly “looking like Virginia”.
One of the primary focuses of the project, both in Bittle’s era and in our own, is not just making out campus look nice but it is meant to bring together the entire Roanoke College community. “The idea of the Bittle Tree uniting the students with the president has outlived Bittle himself,” Dr. Scaer says.
This of course is an ongoing project. Dr. Scaer hopes the next big project will be possibly bringing over a progeny of a German tree to honor the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, considering that we are a Lutheran school, as well as trees related to various writers. “To get tall majestic trees you first have to plant them, and we should make them something interesting,” says Dr. Scaer. He also hopes to put plaques up so everyone can know the significance of these trees.
The ceremony to commemorate the Bittle Tree’s history will be on Wednesday April 24th by the tree. President Maxey, Dr. Miller, and Dr. Scaer are all supposed to talk in honor of the tree. It almost seems like it is less of a ceremony and more of a funeral. Bittle Tree is due to be removed the next day which will be a sad end to Earth Week on campus.
I would like to thank Dr. Miller, Dr. Scaer, Dr. Cawley for their help with the article,as well as Mrs. Linda Miller in the Achieves.