A Tree Mystery

Quite a while ago I ran across this note from J.T. McCants, the long time bursar, to Tony Martino, Rice’s gardener. I got a pretty big kick out of it so I saved it for no particular reason:

It made me laugh because it perfectly captures a feeling I’ve had more than once since I moved to Houston: I’ve gotten so used to most of trees keeping their leaves all year that it’s possible to panic a little when the one in our front yard starts to shed them.

But I somehow got to thinking about this today while I was walking around campus. What specific trees was he talking about? I started looking and it didn’t make sense. Here’s what I saw last winter in between the old and the new dormitories:

Those look like live oaks to me and they most certainly don’t lose their leaves in the fall. Hmmmm. So I went to the pictures and by pure chance I found an early 1930s aerial shot that was taken during the winter. If you zoom in you can see that the trees in that spot are bare. And so are the trees along the road on the other side of the dorms–those are still cedar elms and they definitely still drop their leaves every winter. So they must have replaced cedar elms with live oaks at some point.

When? I don’t know. But it had to have been well before the late 1950s when Joseph Davies took this picture:

This was a most unexpected development. There is much to ponder.

Bonus: There has been quite a bit of new tree planting going on recently and it’s been a pleasure to see them go in. I’ve made it my mission to ensure that any future historian who wonders about the trees will have a way to figure it all out.

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9 Responses to A Tree Mystery

  1. effegee says:

    I heard from one of the South sisters that CCC or WPA planted many of the live oaks. That would make it in the ’30s. Perhaps the trees in question were replaced at that time?

    • Melissa Kean says:

      I’d never heard a word of that. Let me see what I might find.

      There seems to be lots of stuff in the archives about the South family (especially Ira), but I wonder one thing–why did they send all those kids from San Marcos when UT was so much closer? Any idea?

      • effegee says:

        My wife (Ruby’s granddaughter) says she has no idea. Tuition maybe? Perhaps the grand plan for a world class institution? (That probably wasn’t a stated goal those days either of UT or of TAMU [where papa worked].)

        My wife told me many years ago that Ruby was quite intent that her granddaughter attend Rice…and, by 1969, tuition was not only not free but several times the cost of UT and TAMU.

      • effegee says:


        I am not certain when the South family moved to San Marcos but it appears to have been relatively recent when the first children started at Rice. The 1910 census has Horace Walter South in Bryan; the 1920 in San Marcos. He goes back to birth in Brazos country.

        He might have been more aware of Rice in Bryan. TAMU would not have been an option for his three daughters.

        Ruby and Ida have living children. We’re checking with some of them to see if they recall their mothers’ saying anything about why the South children were sent to Rice.

  2. marmer01 says:

    I can certainly believe that the live oaks bordering the streets like Main and Sunset were planted by the CCC or WPA. I’d be less certain about the ones within campus although it might have made economic sense for Rice to “piggy-back” on the project. My guess, and it’s just a guess, is that the trees were replaced when the road was removed as the construction might have damaged their roots. Or maybe the fearsome Mr. McCants told Tony to “plant some trees that won’t lose their leaves!” The aerial picture shows, as many of this area do, one of my favorite “lost buildings” of the area: the huge Spanish-style apartment complex on Bissonnet across from the MFAH on the site of the current church/museum parking lot. Architectural pictures from the late 1950s celebrating the then-new Cullinan Hall by Mies van der Rohe often show that building very clearly.

  3. Deborah Gronke Bennett says:

    As always, I love zooming in on the aerial shots. I wonder what the white things are south of West Hall, between the trees and that long diagonal hedge/tunnel you have mentioned before. One looks like a vertical object (planter? Small obelisk?) and the other four look like gravel or shell areas at the corners of a square.

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