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History of Fell Arboretum

Jesse Fell

Jesse Fell, the initiator of what is now the Fell Arboretum, is noted for extensive tree planting not only on our campus, but also in the towns of Normal, Towanda, Lexington, Pontiac and Clinton. Illinois State University is just one of many places where Jesse Fell introduced the importance and value of planting trees.

Once he accomplished lining the streets with trees in the surrounding communities, Fell set his sights to our college. He wished to plant every type of tree that would flourish in central Illinois on campus to promote the studies of Botany and Forestry.

While Illinois State University was founded in 1857, the entire campus was barren of trees for the following ten years as the university was becoming more established. As one of the cofounders of the university, Jesse Fell obtained expert advice from a professional landscape gardener named William Saunders. Although this discipline was not appreciated during these years, Fell understood its importance.

It wasn’t until 1866, when Fell began serving on the university’s board, that he introduced legislation that lead to the planting of campus. In 1867, Fell obtained $3,000 from the Illinois state legislature for campus landscaping. The same year, Fell had the land plowed under to prepare it for tree planting. Fell’s meticulous project management was evident as it is noted that he personally selected the trees and positioned the trees for planting. Additionally, Fell modified a horse-drawn wagon and used it for planting large trees.

Ultimately, the first tree was then planted in 1868. A total of 1,740 trees were planted that year and another 107 were planted the next year. Fell’s vision for a university tree library was so strong that he even used some of his own money to complete the project before resigning from the board in 1872.

Today, the Fell Arboretum is a public feature that is managed by the School of Biological Sciences. In keeping with Jesse Fell’s vision, the arboretum serves as a living educational tool for the study of Biology, Botany, Horticulture and Agriculture. The arboretum shares this educational mission with other featured garden components on campus, which include: The Horticultural Center, the Felmley Plant Library Greenhouse, the Science Laboratory Building Glass Houses, the George S. Vasey Herbarium, the Weibring Golf Course and the Environmental Outdoor Learning Center.

There is an ongoing effort to populate the Fell Arboretum with noteworthy trees, woody plants, colonies and other naturalized plant habitats.