Written by: Brendan Clark (History, Class of 2021)
Neath the Ashes: Revisiting the Veracity of Trinity’s Alma Matter in the Present Day
Alumni and present students of Trinity alike will recall fondly their jovial experiences of youth whenever the refrain of Trinity’s alma matter ‘Neath the Elms is heard at various college events: “No more shall we meet, our classmates to greet, / ‘Neath the elms of our old Trinity.” The tune, first set to words by Augustus P. Burgwin, Class of 1882, is still a centerpiece of tradition amongst Trinity students and stands as a bulwark against the changing landscape of Trinity in the 21st century.
Indeed, all may be surprised to know that the majority, save a few stragglers, of those familiar elms referenced in the tune were gone by the early 1970s. Before that matter can be addressed, however, the history of the trees which became eponymous with the song must first be examined.
First in 1880 and thereafter in 1883, the Trustees allocated funds and authorized the planting of several rows of English elm trees on the Quad. The location of these earliest rows can be ascertained by the location of the trees which currently stand parallel to Seabury and Jarvis and also the rows of trees that project outward from Northam Towers.
This placement was determined by Frederick Law Olmstead, the famed landscape architect of both Central Park in New York City and Elizabeth Park in Hartford. The original development of the quad was influenced heavily by Olmstead and was designed with a large carriage drive that was intended to proceed from Broad Street and Brownell Avenue, where the drive would fall in front of Northam Towers and serve as the principal route of access to the college. For various reasons, the decision to erect the drive was later rescinded and Summit Street became the primary point of access to the College.
The plantings, when fully grown, would form a “T” in representation of Trinity when viewed from above. However, the early 1950s brought a strain of Dutch elm disease and continued allocations were required to replace the dying elms with new ones. In 1955, three elms were lost in the spring and discussions began as to a permanent solution to the problem. One suggestion that was considered was the removal of the trees altogether, however, it was fiercely opposed in the ensuing decade.
The death of the trees was not given up without a fight: President George Keith Funston emphasized that the “college has an annual contract with a reliable local tree service company.” These sentiments were echoed by Treasurer Joseph W. Getzendanner, Jr. in 1948, several years before the worst of the elm epidemic was to strike.
By 1966, the dreaded conclusion was reached that the trees would have to be replaced and, in 1977, Marshall seedless ash trees were chosen by the Trustees as their principal replacement. Thus, every year, as Trinity students celebrate convocation and graduation ‘Neath the elms, they are in fact celebrating primarily “‘neath the ashes.”
Does this mean that our beloved anthem is outdated or “wrong?” Indeed, the variety of tree notwithstanding, the spirit of friendship, of academic excellence, and of stoic tradition continues to be engendered by the recitation of our dear alma mater.
The sources from which the aforementioned historical survey was derived were previously compiled from previous studies on the subject conducted by Peter J. Knapp and Anne H. Knapp, inter alia. The author owes a tremendous debt to the fastidious work of the aforementioned and a more comprehensive summary of the subject appears in Trinity College in the Twentieth Century.