November 14, 2002

Of Stolen Stumps and Stones

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Among the icons of Cornell — the clocktower, the Sibley Hall dome, the statues of A.D. White and Ezra Cornell — rest many unremarkable landmarks. When students notice them in passing, the weather-worn stones, benches and plaques rarely grab their attention. These resilient memorials, however, remain a testament to Cornell’s enduring past.

Look, for example, at the stone marker resembling a tombstone in front of Stimson Hall on East Ave.

“When I first saw that, I thought someone ran over a cat in front of Day Hall or something, so they buried it there,” said Frank Luh ’02.

The marker, labeled “Ostrander Elms 1880,” has puzzled some students who pass it as they rush to class each day.

Elaine Engst, University archivist and director of the division of rare and manuscript collections at Carl A. Kroch Library, said her department got an interesting call about the engraved stone.

“We once had a call from someone saying, ‘Who was Ostrander Elms, and why was he buried on campus?'” Engst said. According to Engst, the library employee who took the call replied, “That’s not a person, that’s trees!”

John B. Ostrander, a native of Dryden, donated the trees to the University in 1880. Henry W. Sage, chairman of the Board of Trustees at the time, recalled the occasion in his speech at President Charles Kendall Adams’s inauguration in 1885.

“John B. Ostrander, a man remarkable for his integrity and humility, after having served me 25 years in the forests of Canada and Michigan, returned at the age of 70 to Dryden, his native town, to spend there his declining years. Meeting one day he said, ‘Henry, I have been to the University grounds and seen the work in progress there and feel as if I want to do something to help it along. Now, I have no money, but I have been thinking; I have some fine young elms in my woods and I can bring down 30 or 40 and plant them there. They will make the grounds look better, and will make a shade for somebody after you and I are gone.'”

Sage replied, “They are just what we want, bring them and they shall be known as the Ostrander Elms.” He explained at the inauguration that, “Those are the elms on East Avenue, and a stone at each end of the row marks the name of the donor.”

Sage predicted that “a hundred years hence the shadows of their graceful foliage will attest to the loving gift he made us.”

The trees did last nearly 100 years — until Dutch Elm disease plagued the species in the 1960s.

“The whole campus used to be lined with elm trees,” said Andrea Dutcher MILR ’87, Helen A. Newman director of recreational services.

Workers then cut down the diseased trees. Outside Ho Plaza, which also used to have a perimeter of Elms, they left a stump “as a memorial to the elms,” Dutcher said.

“The large stump was left to pacify students who had bitterly protested the tree’s removal,” The Sun wrote in 1975.

“Students used to paint it, tack things on it, hold protests by it,” Engst said. “It was a really central place on campus.”

It also served as a political soapbox — “a place students would stand to shout their messages,” said Susan H. Murphy ’73, vice president of student and academic services. “One of the more famous pictures is of David Burak [’67], then of the Students for Democratic Society, standing on top of the stump during the protests of 1969 [at the Willard Straight Hall takeover].”

With its convenient location outside the Straight, “The stump was a favorite gathering spot, home for graffiti and [a] message board when I was here from ’69 to ’73,” Murphy said.

Then one day — November 4, 1975 — the stump was mysteriously sawed off.

“There was a huge uproar on campus when the stump disappeared,” Dutcher said.

Students expressed their distress over of the “stumpless Straight.” While they first suspected the culprit to be the Department of Building and Properties, the Safety Division assured the public that “no University department or agency is responsible and the case is being investigated as an act of ‘criminal mischief,'” according to the Nov. 6, 1975 issue of The Sun.

A classified ad in the paper that day read, “If you ever want to see your beloved stump again, don’t call the police. Ransom instructions will follow.”

The Sun advertised a 50 dollar reward for information leading “to the recovery of the stump or apprehension of individuals responsible for its theft.”

Reactions included plans by some students to glue the stump pieces back together if the top was found. Another student expressed optimism, saying, “Well it’s still a stump, it’s just smaller.”

Two days after the stump stealing, a Sun reporter and photographer located the missing segment undamaged in a local state park. The culprits — 12 students — had planned to ransom the stump in exchange for donations to UNICEF. Their goal was to raise $100.

University workers reattached the stump with metal rods, restoring the traditional message board to its campus roots. But many students criticized the sloppy reattachment, saying the workers left a gap of several inches between the two segments of stump.

“It was a farce the way they had it up there. It was degrading to the stump,” said Lorrie B. Panzer ’77 at the time of the incident.

One University official, however, estimated the cost of reattachment at up to $400. When vandals pushed the stump over again at the end of the fall 1975 semester, the University left it up to the students to restore.

The severed stump languished in a loading area behind the Straight and was later discarded.

In 1977 workers removed the remainder of the stump on Ho Plaza.

“There really was no way to save a stump,” Engst said.

The Class of 1977 planted a new tree in the stump’s place, accompanying it with a boulder and plaque inscribed “This tree replacing the beloved “Stump” is a gift from the class of 1977.” This boulder now rests in a slightly different area off to the side of Ho Plaza, in front of the Straight.

Another landmark on campus with a history of victimization by vandals is Wee Stinky glen — the stream banked by grassy slopes between Sage Hall and Day Hall, behind the Campus Store.

The plaque bearing the stream’s name has been stolen at least three times.

It says, “Wee Stinky Glen, beautification commenced by Class of 1932. Will be continued by Class of 1982.”

The smelly stream got its negative reputation at the end of the 19th century, when the current buildings of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations were occupied by Veterinary Medicine.

“For many years a very small brook acted as a drain for the laboratories of the buildings. In summer it was not sweet-smelling and residents of nearby faculty houses complained [to no avail],” wrote Elizabeth Baker Wells ’28 in her book, Contributions to Cornell History: Portraits, Memorabilia, Plaques and Artists.

Relicts from the former Vet School site are still visible today on the old Ives Hall building.

“Above the archway there are a pig, turtle, rabbit, squirrel and something else,” Dutcher said.

Dutcher, who until three years ago led a physical education jogging tours class, asked her students once to guess why animal figures would be carved into the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“One of the women in the class said, ‘That’s because all the men in the ILR school are animals,'” Dutcher recalled.

With the University departments frequently chang
ing places, many buildings no longer represent the subjects studied inside. The carvings above Tjaden Hall, for example, depict pioneers in electricity. Formerly labeled Franklin Hall, the building housed electrical engineering and still shows an image of Benjamin Franklin over the door. Today, fine arts majors call Tjaden Hall home.

Carvings above the North Entrance of Goldwin Smith Hall depict “butter fat testing equipment,” according to Engst. “That was the first agriculture building,” before the College of Agriculture was established, she explained.

While these buildings remained the same when their function shifted, other Cornell structures have been demolished.

The only remnants of Bowman hall — where Olin Library now stands — are the stone heads imbedded in the library walls.

“The workmen may have carved them in their own likenesses,” Engst said. “Or they could just be gargoyles.”

Bowman hall sat in line with Uris Library and Stimson Hall. William Henry Miller designed all three buildings.

“It made that whole side of the Arts Quad make sense,” Engst said. “On the other hand, there was no way you could make [Bowman Hall] into a library,” she added, calling the demolition and construction a “tradeoff.”

Campus landmarks, meanwhile, are not usually affected by construction.

“They tend to be in places where they kind of just fit in,” Engst said.

A marker placed by the Class of 1872, for example, still sits beside Olin Library, tucked away behind the hedges. It reads “’72: Prima Interpares” — recognizing the first “through” class to graduate four years after Cornell opened. Like the Ostrander Elms “tombstone,” this similarly-shaped rock once marked a row of elm trees donated by the class.

“Graduating classes have placed [certain] objects of utility or art upon the campus or near it to stand as memorials,” wrote C.H. Thurber ’87 in his 1886 book, In and Out of Ithaca — A description of the village, the surrounding scenery, and Cornell University.

Other class memorials — besides the Wee Stinky Glen beautification project and Class of 1977 stump plaque — include the Class of 1873 drinking fountain outside McGraw Hall and a statue of Augustus Caesar in the lobby of Goldwin Smith Hall — a gift from the class of 1885.

Off campus, landmarks face more difficulty blending in with their surroundings. The Eddy Gate in lower Collegetown, for instance, was constructed in 1896 to be a grand south entrance to the campus.

“It was at one point the main entrance to the University,” Engst said. Made of red and white sandstone, the locals “referred to it as Andy White’s chocolate layer cake.”

Today, the prominence of Eddy Gate is overshadowed by high-rise apartment buildings, its reputation diminished by the apartment building bearing its name.

“The whole scale of Collegetown has gotten bigger,” Engst said.

As the buildings and grounds of Cornell continually change, these relicts remind students of the classes that came before and link them to a common past.

— The first of this three part series examines the history of two forgotten monuments.

Archived article by Heather Schroeder