Podcast Episode 12: Mighty Oaks of the Horseshoe

Remembering the Days Podcast — Episode 12

What began as "a wilderness of lofty pines and wild shrubs" in the early 1800s became a refined college quadrangle now known as the Horseshoe. Join us for a short walk among these shady trees — and learn how you can have your very own piece of this paradise.

In 1805, a young man named Edward Hooker toured the newly opened campus of South Carolina College, the precursor of today’s University of South Carolina. Hooker would become one of the first tutors at the college, and he wrote in his diary about the wilderness of lofty pines and wild shrubs that covered what we now call the Horseshoe, the site of the original campus.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re taking a historical look at the lofty trees that still cover the Horseshoe and surrounding campus. Come join me for a few minutes in the shade of these mighty oaks. 

The original campus of South Carolina College was 24 acres, roughly the equivalent of 10 city blocks. That wilderness of pines and shrubs that Hooker described in the early 1800s was soon transformed into a more genteel landscape. A painting of the Horseshoe from 1820 depicts two straight rows of mature trees and a smattering of other trees planted beside seven buildings. Photographs of the Horseshoe from the 1870s show an assortment of mature leafy trees, many of them American elm.

Tom Knowles: The original Horseshoe, back in the early 1800s, was planted with American elms, strictly all American elms, and they have since died off. Dutch elm disease kind of ravaged those — most of the American elm species mostly across the upper Midwest but also in the East and the Southeast.

That’s Tom Knowles, director of grounds management at the university. He says after Dutch elm disease killed off many of the trees on the Horseshoe, the university planted different types in the 1930s. The Horseshoe’s oldest trees now date back to that time nearly a century ago.

Knowles: Here on the Horseshoe is predominantly a collection of oaks. There are a number of small ornamental trees along the edges. We have dogwood, we have some maples … Our concentration today is mostly on sustaining a mixed stand both in age and species so that we have good variety and diversity on the Horseshoe that will be here for generations. As you look around you see younger trees, older trees, some of the biggest ones, this willow oak right here is the biggest. It’s 70, 80, 90 years old maybe.

Several years ago a very old live oak tree near McKissick was hit by lightning and eventually had to be removed. Tom and his crew carefully counted 154 tree rings, which means that tree had been only a sapling in 1870, just a few years after the Civil War. Some of the lumber from that tree was turned into an enormous dining table for a restaurant called Community Table, located behind the Carolina Coliseum.

There are still a couple of very large and very old live oak trees on the Horseshoe, along with quite a few other varieties of oak.

Knowles: We have, obviously, live oak, we have laurel oak, we have willow oak, we have shumart oak, there’s nuttall oak, there’s overcup oak, there is Japanese blue oak, sawtooth oak, chestnut oak, white oak, southern red oak, black oak, that might cover it. I might have missed one or two.

And those are just the different types of oak trees. Altogether, there are more than 7,000 trees across the entire campus — a veritable urban forest — representing about 80 different species.

Tom and his crew spend a lot of time pruning and caring for all those trees, and the university’s stewardship of its forest has been recognized by the American Arbor Day Foundation. The university has that organization’s Tree Campus USA designation, and there’s a student group that helps plant new trees on campus every year.

Erin McFarland: Definitely interested in the nature of our campus because I feel like that’s part of what makes it so beautiful out here is just how submersed you can be in plants and flowers and trees and birds. It makes it feel nice and alive.

Erin McFarland is a senior majoring in environmental studies who helps plan the Arbor Day tree plantings. She says she has encouraged a lot of students to come to the Horseshoe, find acorns on the ground and plant them in pots. When they graduate, they can transplant that piece of campus to wherever they happen to settle down.

And, you know what?, you can do the same thing. Doesn’t matter when you were a student here.

McFarland: Oh, definitely. You could come out here, get yourself a little pot of soil, pick up an acorn and you’d have your own little piece of the Horseshoe.

That is a pretty cool idea, having your very own piece of this shady paradise from a campus that is among the most beautiful across the country.

Knowles: It’s unbelievable how many people come visit this campus and comment on the trees and how beautiful and shady and lush it is. It’s things like this that make me feel blessed to realize where I live and just how beautiful it is and we shouldn’t take it for granted.

This episode of Remembering the Days is sponsored by the UofSC Alumni Association, the home for all Gamecocks that connects students and alumni to advance their careers, their passions and their university.

For the University of South Carolina, I’m Chris Horn. See you next time, and forever to thee!

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