Editor's Note: This story by naturalist and environmental historian Sam Kapp on the evolution of the Lillian Anderson Arboretum (K College's The Arb) is the first in a series of Trail Tales, a historic and present-day look at Southwestern Michigan's trails and preserves.
Lillian Anderson Arboretum, affectionately known as “The Arb” among its caretakers, is one of Kalamazoo’s not-so-hidden gems. Located fifteen minutes from downtown, the arboretum boasts miles of hiking trails and many scenic relaxation spots. Together with Oshtemo Township Park and part of Bonnie Castle Lake, The Arb anchors approximately 140 acres of green space at the boundary between urban and rural landscapes off of West Main/M-43. If you count the"natural habitat of Oshtemo Township Park and Bonnie Castle Lake, the undeveloped and protected area that surrounds The Arb is closer to 300 acres.
While the property has become more frequented over the past few years due to its obvious natural beauty, many who walk its trails may be unaware of its storied history.
The Arboretum is named after Lillian Anderson, the property's benefactor. A biography on the Arboretum’s website
, tells the remarkable story of her life.
Born in 1903 in Oshtemo, she “lived in the white clapboard, Greek Revival house” situated just “East of the Arboretum parking lot.” Her mother, May Bell Anderson, was a “full-time farm wife,” and “a part-time school teacher,” who encouraged Lillian to pursue her education further. After graduating from Kalamazoo College in 1926, Anderson went on to Columbia University in New York City, receiving her Master’s in Librarianship. She returned to her family’s homestead, located on the current Arboretum property, and joined the Kalamazoo Public Library’s staff, serving for 42 years.
Evidence of The Arb’s homestead past can be found throughout the property. Solitary fence posts are scattered throughout, camouflaged by brush. Lines of cherry trees mark old property lines — birds would eat the cherry seeds, sit on the fence post then pass the seeds. Outlines of old roads and even debris from the farming period, show that agriculture dominated before reforestation.
Anderson initially split the donation of her property between K College and First Presbyterian Church in 1982 but later transferred ownership completely to K. In 1998, the Lillian Anderson Arboretum was officially dedicated, providing not only the college but also the community at large with a place for research and recreation. Anderson passed away in 2001, leaving a legacy that continues to benefit many.
An old road appears off of Meadow Run trail.
Charlene Boyer Lewis, the Larry J. Bell Distinguished Chair in American History Professor at K College, as well as a member of the Arboretum’s advisory committee, and Paul Sotherland, professor emeritus of biology, detailed the history of the property during the early days of K’s stewardship.
Sotherland was integral in obtaining the property for K as Boyer Lewis affirms that “we have the Arboretum because of Paul.” His first trips to the property were in the early 90s. At the time, the property was underdeveloped and was initially used to “dump brush and leaves and other stuff,” according to Sotherland. Boyer Lewis notes that after the '98 dedication several courses began using The Arb for educational purposes and it became more available to the public.
It was Sotherland and his students that first built trails at The Arb in the mid-90s. While one might suspect that the trails were placed in areas of scientific importance, Sotherland confesses that it was “me just walking around, seeing where trails would be good—some old game trails.”
When asked about the trail names, Sotherland erupt with laughter announcing, “Man, we just made those up!”
Many a high school senior photo has been taken along the Magnificent Pines Trail at The Arb.
“Magnificent Pines got its name from the women’s cross-country team back when Pete Gathje was cross-country coach” in the mid-'90s. Sotherland notes that for some time the cross-country team thought of using the property as its running course. One time when the women’s team was on the trail, they all stopped. Paralyzed by the beauty of the pines, all they could utter was “This is so magnificent.”
Not-So-Magnificent Pines trail is just that. Possessing pines intended for logging, this trail is not as impressive as its counterpart. Gathje Hill pays tribute to the former cross-country coach. The name stems from the idea that as the runners climb the hill, they’d curse the coach's name in exhaustion. Batts Pond, along with the pavilion, is named after Dr. H. Lewis Batts, a former K professor, and his wife Jean, who were instrumental in protecting part of the property. Oxen Run trail was created for the construction of Batts Pavilion, with oxen provided by Tillers International used to haul the necessary lumber.
Sotherland adds that the Wood Frog trail got its name from the “zillion wood frogs all over the place” when he and his students built the trail. And the Bobayundel trail is portmanteau, combining the last names of three students that interned with Sotherland.
When questioned about the naming of Bernie’s Landing, both Boyer Lewis and Sotherland let out more boisterous laughs. Sotherland recalls how Bernard Palchick, the Vice President for College Advancement during the late '90s, would chain his canoe right in the middle of a particularly good fishing spot. A little playful teasing resulted in the moniker as he “hates the name Bernie,” and became “pretty livid” when he found out. Sotherland challenged that “as soon as you (Palchick) raise a million dollars for the Arboretum” he would change the name. The name still stands.
Chestnut Point Trail was named after the very scarce American Chestnut trees found there. “As far as I can tell,” Sotherland says, “no one ever logged there.” Most of the property Lillian owned was farmland and orchard, making The Arb predominately second growth. The other trails, such as Meadow Run, Old Field, and Powerline, received their names from the physical areas in which they run.
A section of fence located along the Marsh Woods trail.
When discussing The Arboretum’s importance to the college, Boyer Lewis says, “It took a while to get funding for The Arb.” It was not until the presidency of Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran in the mid-2000s that “there was fundraising for The Arboretum.” When pressed why, Boyer Lewis replied, “It just wasn’t a priority,” but when “more environmental issues, like climate change, became important” so did The Arb.
In 2011, K bought the Anderson farmhouse from the Langeland family. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the original intent for the house was to serve as the Center for Environmental Stewardship. Now it serves as staff housing for the college.
Sara Stockwood, the Director of the Larry J. Bell (’80) Center for Environmental Stewardship and Lillian Anderson Arboretum, recalls when she first started the job in 2013, “the public was welcome,” but that there “wasn’t signage that made that clear.” Visitors “really increased in 2016, 2017,” and swelled with the pandemic.
Currently, there are several long-term projects taking place on the property. The Pollinator Habitat Enhancement Project, coordinated by Professor of Biology Dr. Ann Fraser, is a continuous effort to provide pollinators, such as bees, an abundance of native plants. Signs of this project can be found along the powerline trail. “Rather than have the power company come and mow,” Stockwood says, we “utilize the area ecologically.”
Another project, focusing on carbon sequestration and coordinated by Professor of Biology Binney Girdler, seeks to measure how much carbon is captured by the Arb’s trees. Understanding sequestration is invaluable in accounting for the college’s carbon footprint. Walking through the flood path between Bobayundel and Marsh Woods trails, one will encounter rows of metal tags on trees in one of many plots on the property that are part of the Carbon Sequestration Project.
Metal tags in trees indicate their use for the carbon sequestration project.
One of the ways that carbon sequestration is calculated, Stockwood explains, “is by measuring the trees and seeing their growth.” Then that “information is plugged into a calculator” to see how much carbon is sequestered. Rather than have every tree on the property tagged, certain sections are “representative of different areas…make assumptions for the rest of the land cover and what kind of tree so we can come up with our best estimate.”
The Arb is soon to be filled with activity with the start of spring. The student-run Arb Trail Crew will be out helping with trail maintenance, trash pickup, erosion control, and invasive species management. Students will soon be starting on research projects. They have conducted research on everything from preferred bumble bee environments to understory invasive plants.
Abstracts of these past projects are available on The Arboretum’s website.
As Lillian Anderson Arboretum marks its 25th anniversary this year, it continues to offer a myriad of fascinating features to explore. By delving further into its distant and recent history, we can better appreciate The Arb’s significance.
Land Acknowledgment: This land was originally inhabited by the Potawatomi.