Rod Library--Special Collections
Circle Elm and Library Oak Trees
Most of the original forty acres of the UNI campus was clear, unwooded upland when the school opened in 1876. However, several early writers noted that there were at least some trees on campus. There were silver maples in the low, damp southeast corner in front of what is now Seerley Hall. There were "junipers" (possibly red cedars) in the area on the south side of campus about where Sabin Hall now stands. And there were maples and ashes in the area where Bartlett Hall and the East Gym were later built.
But for the first ninety years of UNI history, the predominant tree on campus was the American elm (Ulmus americana). Elm saplings, planted along the front drive, appear in the earliest campus photos.
Front drive with elm saplings, 1870s.
Faculty and students tended the elms carefully during those early days. Maude Gilchrist, daughter of the school's first principal, James Cleland Gilchrist, remembered her father saying to a group of students after supper, "Well, boys, those elms need water." He then led the "boys" to the eastern part of campus with a bucket of water in each hand.
American elms were wonderful shade trees. They grew quickly into large, graceful, vase-shaped specimens. The UNI campus, especially the area along College Street, became a shady haven with tall elms arching over pleasant sidewalks and roads.
The same shaded campus pathway leading to Lang Hall in the 1900s...
Elms were easy to grow and beautiful in their maturity. Consequently, it is not surprising that when Physical Plant Director E. E. Cole made a count in 1957, he found that 540 of the 602 campus trees, nearly ninety per cent, were American elms.
The elm-shaded campus, c. 1947.
One campus elm attained landmark status. This handsome, relatively solitary tree became known as the Circle Elm, because, in the latter part of its life, it stood in the Back Circle, a pleasant, park-like area now occupied by the Maucker Union.
However, the Circle Elm had not always grown in a landscaped, manicured park. The Circle Elm probably began its life during the earliest days of the Normal School in the 1870s. Since the elm grew in the campus "backyard", though, where athletics and military drill took place, there are no early photos of it.
The earliest datable photo that clearly shows the elm was taken during a student cadet drill at a Commissioning Day Ceremony in 1892.
Cadet drill, 1892; the elm stands behind the original Gilchrist Hall.
At that time, the elm stood about twenty-five or thirty feet high. (Compare it to the original Gilchrist Hall behind it.) It was still a bushy, dense young tree, possibly fifteen years old.
Another military drill photo was shot about ten years later.
Cadet drill, c. 1902; the elm is considerably taller.
The elm had grown ten to fifteen feet taller by the time of this later photo. It had also begun to assume the vase shape characteristic of mature elms. The elm, however, was not quite as large or dense as it may appear in this photo. There is another elm behind the Circle Elm that gives the illusion of deeper and denser shade.
Until the early 1930s, the central part of campus served distinctly utilitarian purposes. Stables, sheds, supplies, equipment, warehouses, athletic fields, parking lots, and the power plant were all located where the Maucker Union and the Rod Library now stand. During the ten year interval between the two military drill photos, the campus power plant was re-built. The old smokestack was demolished and a new stack was built a little farther south and closer to the Circle Elm.
Power Plant and the elm, c. 1904.
And, since the power plant burned coal, there was a large coal pile in the center of campus most of the year. That coal pile often extended quite close to the Circle Elm. By the late 1920s, half of the elm's drip-line was in a parking lot; the other half was in the coal storage area. These were terrible growing conditions, but the elm survived.
The center of campus, c. 1928.
In 1933, a new power plant on the southern edge of campus was completed. The old central campus plant was demolished.
At about the same time, the school undertook a landscaping program that improved the appearance of many parts of campus. Some of the large evergreens near the Campanile are products of that program. The central campus area formerly occupied by the power plant and the coal pile also received the attention of the landscapers. Workers laid diagonal concrete walks and planted a few spruces and spreading junipers in this area. But the dominant element of the landscape was the tall elm, then about sixty years old. The above right photo was taken looking toward the East Gym around 1940.
Through the 1940s and 1950s, a walk to class across the Back Circle, as it came to be known, was an everyday part of most students' lives. For those with cars, there was even a limited amount of parking available along the edges of the pleasant grassy area.
The Circle in the 1940s (Left) and the 1950s (Right).
This open area extended clear back to the Campanile and, beyond that, to the West Gym. It was UNI's nearest approach to a college quadrangle.
With the completion of Phase One of the Rod Library in 1964, however, this open prospect was closed. The new building had the effect of completing the enclosure of the Back Circle with substantial academic structures.
The Circle after completion of the Library, c. 1966.
Library construction took place far away from the Circle Elm and did it no harm. But the next construction project in the central campus core would devastate the Circle.
Since its completion in 1933, the Commons had served as the student union. By the 1960s, the school needed a much larger and more modern facility. University planners selected the Back Circle as the site for the new union. They believed that the Circle's central location made it a natural site for a student facility. Many students and faculty protested when they learned of these plans. During the 1965-1966 school year they circulated petitions against the Circle site. Donald Howard, a respected member of the history faculty, proposed alternate locations. But the protests were in vain. The Regents reaffirmed that the prime central location of the Circle made it the best site for a student union.
In the spring of 1967, the large spruce trees, then about thirty-five years old, were dug up and transplanted.
Spruces prepared for transplanting, 1967.
Several of those transplants, including the tree that became the campus Christmas tree, survived until quite recently.
The Circle Elm, however, was cut down and hauled away. It was probably about ninety years old. The Circle was cleared and the Maucker Union was built.
In all likelihood, construction of the Union shortened the life of the Circle Elm by only a few years. Dutch elm disease, in its deadly march across campus, would almost certainly have killed the Circle Elm. The disease reached Iowa in 1957. President Maucker sought professional advice and organized a campaign to fight it.
Physical Plant staff trimmed broken branches, cabled large limbs together, and removed suspect trees. There was initial optimism that the disease could be controlled. But ultimately it was a losing battle. By 1963, the disease had reached the campus neighborhood. By 1966 many campus trees were infected.
Within just a few more years, nearly all mature elms in the campus area were dead and gone. Many people who lived in the Midwest during that time remember the roar of chainsaws as the background noise in their lives for months on end. By the early 1970s, the campus had the stark appearance of a clear cut forest.
Only a few ash and locust trees remained after the elms were cleared.
Click here to view part two.
Botanical advice by Reference Librarian Chris Neuhaus; scanning and Web coding by Library Assistant Susan Basye; photo selection and essay by University Archivist Gerald Peterson, January 1998; last updated, November 15, 2011 (GP).