There are only two living witnesses to the earliest days of the university’s history, and our great loss is they cannot speak.
They arrived on campus in 1879, three years after the university opened its doors to 44 students and a year after Mary Rippon, CU’s first female professor, arrived. Old Main housed the classrooms, library, janitor, President Joseph Sewall and his family.
President Sewall sealed their fates when he purchased them and 40 other cottonwood trees on April 24, 1879, for $52.50. Planted in front of a wind-swept Old Main, the trees came with a one-year warranty, spelled out clearly in black cursive writing on a yellowed receipt that resurfaced several years ago in Norlin Library — they had to be watered well and protected from livestock.
Cows roamed the campus, but the two trees survived, miraculously surpassing the average cottonwood lifespan of 80 years. The larger of the two stretches 120 feet high, towering protectively over Old Main’s south entrance. It takes 16-20 visiting fourth-graders to circle her wrinkled trunk.
In 133 years, the trees have seen it all. They watched the first female graduate in 1886 three years before baseball and football became the first athletic teams. In 1917 one-third of faculty and 15 percent of students left to serve in World War I while World War II emptied classrooms and led to the rise of Vetsville. Vietnam protests halted finals during spring 1970, while civil rights activism gave rise to change. There was the devastating loss of two alumni astronauts on shuttle explosions, the celebrations of four campus Nobel Laureates and an ever-expanding university.
Today, on a warm summer day, you can hear a quiet symphony if you sit under the cottonwoods. It starts with the breeze striking a chord with the shimmering leaves overhead, followed by those on the nearby 50-year-old littleleaf linden and honey locust trees and on the 35-year-old green ash. Together they compose a gentle sound full of memory, a nod to the days you walked by Old Main, heading to class and carrying an overwhelming feeling that, in that moment, there was no greater place to be.
Photo courtesy Casey A. Cass