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2009 News Releases

Site of Cormier Honors College vegetable garden has historical connection

October 15, 2009

Students, faculty and staff who helped start the Cormier Honors College vegetable garden. Students, faculty and staff who helped start the Cormier Honors College vegetable garden – Caitlin Zoetis (from left), Dr. Mike Lund, Averill Trapani, Heidi Macey, Dr. Geoff Orth, Louise Waller and Dr. Alix Fink – in front of the garden and a historic tree.

The site of a new Longwood University sustainability project, inspired by a similar project at the White House, has an historical connection to the White House.

The Cormier Honors College for Citizen Scholars has established a vegetable garden that will be used to teach students about such issues as botany, agriculture, nutrition, and biodiversity. The garden was prompted both by the vegetable garden that President and Michelle Obama instituted at the White House last spring and by Gov. Tim Kaine's Renew Virginia initiative, a year-long series of legislative and administrative actions promoting renewable energy, creating green jobs, and encouraging preservation of the environment. The garden, which was staked out in mid-September and will be planted this fall, is beside one edge of the Wheeler parking lot near the corner of Griffin Boulevard and High Street.

After the site was chosen, the garden's organizers learned something that was a pleasant surprise. A large Southern magnolia tree a few yards away grew from cuttings brought to Farmville in 1898 by Robert Evans, who apparently once lived in Farmville and was an African-American groundskeeper at the White House under President McKinley. Evans, probably after pruning a tree at the White House, brought cuttings to Farmville as gifts for friends and relatives. The tree next to the garden is one of two trees resulting from branches he gave to Pompey Bland, a friend who lived at the corner. The trees, one of which died recently, lined each side of a walkway leading to his house, which is no longer there.

Evans was the son of a Reconstruction-era member of the Virginia House of Delegates, William D. Evans, and also a relative of a state senator during that era, James W.D. Bland, who was Pompey Bland's brother. Because of the tree's historical significance, the vegetable garden also will stimulate discussion of the role that African-Americans in Prince Edward County played in building and operating Longwood from when it was founded, in 1839, until it admitted its first black student, in 1966.

"Students in the Honors College study the local community, and we thought it'd be a good idea to study this chunk of Farmville," said Dr. Geoff Orth, director of the Cormier Honors College. "After we found out this tree came from the White House, we thought it was an opportunity to study the local African-American community. It all just seemed to come together. We feel really good about this."

The garden will be managed by students in the Cormier Honors College, especially freshmen. All but one of the 44 freshmen in the Cormier Honors College live in Wheeler Hall, just across Griffin Boulevard from the garden, which was renovated a few years ago as the program's home. A total of more than 230 students are in the Cormier Honors College, officially launched in January 2009, which blends the former Honors Program and the Cormier Citizen Scholars Program, previously a scholarship program within the Honors Program.

"The garden will be a hands-on educational tool and a continuing lab that will involve students from many disciplines," said Dr. Michael Lund, assistant director of the Cormier Honors College, who was instrumental in developing the project. "In the Honors College, we like to have students involved in activities outside the classroom which are related to the classroom, which is what this garden will do. It also supports the university's theme of sustainability. Visitors to the site may learn about such diverse topics as Jeffersonian democracy and reasons behind current drives to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Student research projects in a variety of academic disciplines also may be tied to the site. Among the topics to be studied are food production, diet in an age of fast food and busy lives, and other contemporary issues. We hope to develop interactive multimedia displays at the garden and online.

"Because I was interested in the Honors College being involved in a sustainability project, I first proposed a roof garden on Wheeler, but concerns about structure and liability - the roof wasn't built to support the extra weight of a garden and gardeners - precluded that," Lund said. "Then I looked for a place close to Wheeler, so the Honors students could work there easily, and saw that spot not being used. It was also large enough to fit the same plan as the White House garden. Only when I was meeting with (Longwood employees) Louise Waller, Kelly Martin, and Bill Westerhoff did I learn, from Louise, that the tree came from the White House, which was fortuitous."

The size of the garden, 37 feet by 20 feet with an extra 12-foot by 12-foot section in one corner, is virtually identical to the White House garden, and its shape also is similar. A walking path will cut through the garden. "We hope to have two or three beds in this fall," said Lund, who also is professor emeritus of English. "This fall, we'll plant cold weather crops: lettuce, turnips, and collards. Maybe we'll plant rye grass this winter. In the spring, we'll try to copy the White House garden exactly. We'll also have flowers, to repel bugs."

Seven of the branches from the magnolia tree at the White House became trees in Farmville. Five of the trees were victims of Longwood's expansion. The White House magnolia tree is still standing, said Dr. Jeff Kirwan, a forestry expert who is a Virginia Tech-based extension specialist and has researched historic trees in Virginia.

"The connection between this site and the White House is quite interesting, particularly since we now have our first African-American president," Lund said.