100 Years of Forestry at Sewanee

Peyton Hassinger

Features Editor

Greta Lane

Contributing Writer

This year marks the 100th anniversary of forestry at the University of the South. In 1923, John Bayard Snowden made a $50,000 endowment towards building the department. Ever since, Sewanee has had an excellent forestry program and provides students, faculty and alumni with forestry opportunities found nowhere else.

Photo Courtesy of William R. Laurie University Archives and Special Collections

“I can say quite sincerely that I do not know an educational institution…with which I am on the whole in such hearty sympathy as with Sewanee University,” wrote President Theodore Roosevelt in a 1907 letter to Vice-Chancellor Benjamin L. Wiggins. This was one letter amidst many discussing the vast forestlands of The University of the South when forest management within the United States was just beginning to gain the attention of its citizens. These letters and the increasing attention to natural resources on the Domain finally led to John Bayard Snowden’s endowment. 

After much correspondence with Vice-Chancellor B.F. Finney, Snowden along with friends, family, alumni, and anyone else willing to donate made the study of forestry possible at the University of the South in 1923. The endowment was made in memory of Snowden’s mother, Annie B. Snowden. The events that led to this seminal endowment are rich and vital to appreciating Sewanee as an academic institution. 

In 1859, the University was gifted a total of 10,000 acres of forestland on the Cumberland Plateau by the Sewanee Mining Company. Vice-Chancellor B.L. Wiggins requested assistance in forest management from the United States Bureau of Forestry, the organization preceding the United States Forest Service. Gifford Pinchot, head of the bureau and the man credited with being the father of American forestry, was struck by the forests of Sewanee and eagerly began managing the woodlands. This began a long and closely maintained relationship between Sewanee and the United States Bureau of Forestry.

Photo Courtesy of William R. Laurie University Archives and Special Collections

In 1899, Sewanee published its first management plan, which was consequently one of the first written in the country. Four years later, in 1903, the second management plan was published by the United States Bureau of Forestry. The Bureau managed the forestlands of Sewanee until 1908. 

Finally in 1923, the Department of Forestry was organized and granted professorship. Finney consequently had thousands of trees planted to further repopulate the vast forest, and had the beloved Memorial Cross erected at the end of Tennessee Avenue. 

In its early days, the curriculum was described as “pre-forestry,” and served as a prep-school for students who wanted to continue their forestry education at a different institution. Then, in 1942, Charles E. Cheston became the head of the department, under whom the department thrived for over thirty years. But, it wasn’t until 1962, when Snowden Hall was built, that the department gained a home. 

Dr. Scott Torreano is a professor of forestry here at Sewanee. He started his career at the University of the South just over 30 years ago, and has since been fascinated by the forestry opportunities at the college. 

Dr. Torreano said the forestry department didn’t have a central area of practice until Snowden was built. Before 1962, Torreano said, forestry was practiced “wherever they would give us room.”

“We were over in what was called Science Hall, which is now Carnegie. The school was much smaller back then. Everybody who was involved with the sciences was in Science Hall. The humanities would have been in Walsh-Ellett. And that was the school, that was the college back then,” says Torreano. “In 1962, Snowden became the first privately funded academic building.”

Dr. Torreano says the building was made possible with the effort of many people who are passionate and loyal to Sewanee. “They worked really, really hard to have a nice building,” he commented. “All this [wood] was donated by forestry industries, people within the department, friends of friends.”

Two years after Cheston’s promotion, forestry became a degree program, offering Sewanee students  a Bachelor of Science. In 1978,  the program evolved into the Department of Natural Resources to include a wider variety of scientific disciplines and curriculum involving the surrounding domain, such as geology. 

During his time here, Dr. Torreano said, he has had many opportunities to explore and study the Domain and the history of its management. 

“Looking at the past can help us have a more sustainable future,” he said, adding that Sewanee hasn’t always had a progressive outlook on forestland. “There’s a period of about 10-15 years where the Domain was really affected by fire and wasteful and improper harvesting of trees,” Torreano said. 

In the late 1880’s, Vice-Chancellor Telfair Hodgson recognized the economic potential of the woodlands and wanted to clear most of the land. At the same time, many local residents would trespass on the Domain and mercilessly exploit its resources until all that was left was the poorest quality timber and vegetation. 

“It’s almost like it was heaven sent,” Dr. Torreano said. “Just when Sewanee needs this help, we have this Vice-Chancellor [Wiggins] who sees the possibilities and who is so moved that he says, ‘I need some help.’” The damage subsided when Wiggins became vice-chancellor and began his correspondence with the United States Bureau of Forestry. They began rebuilding the lush forest and saving it from what seemed like inevitable destruction. 

Charlotte Ganter, (C ’25), spends the majority of her time in Snowden. She says she always wanted to work outside, but didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do until she got to the University. “I took my first geology class with Dr. Thompson,” she comments, “And I just fell super in love with geology.”

Snowden is a very special place for many current and past students. “It’s a very comforting environment,” Ganter says. “I’m constantly surrounded by people who are interested in the things I’m interested in. It’s a tight-knit community, even with the people who just come in there to study. It’s lovely. All the wood makes it feel very homey. It’s a really good environment to just exist in.”

Since the early 1900s, the University has written at least seven more management plans. These 13,000 acres we sit upon today, 10,000 of which were gifted to us almost 200 years ago, have made Sewanee one of the largest institutions in the country by acreage and a leading force in land conservation and management. 

The Domain’s rich history and evolution of forestry has made the campus a sanctuary for students passionate about the subject. For decades, young students have come to Sewanee in search of unique and extensive instruction immersing them in the 13,000 acres of the Domain. The next hundred years are sure to be prosperous. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Sewanee as having one of the biggest forestry programs in the country and described a School of Forestry instead of a Department of Forestry. The Sewanee Purple regrets these errors.

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