Huntingdon's American Chestnut Trees
|Mac Phillippi, president of the Alabama State Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation; Phillip Young, friend and former trustee of the College; and George Gibbs, friend of the College, plant the first American chestnut tree on campus.
||Parker Hogan, Huntingdon's 2010 Mary Dell Matthews Gibbs Scholar, meets scholarship donor George Gibbs.
At a ceremony held Friday, December 10, 2010, the first of 27 American chestnut trees was planted on the Huntingdon College campus. The first tree planted at Huntingdon was also the first grown in the American Chestnut Foundation's national orchard in Meadowview, Virginia, to be planted in the state of Alabama, and represents 27 years of genetic research to produce a tree that will withstand the blight that wiped out an estimated 4 billion American chestnut trees from 1900 to 1950.
Once abundant in forests from Maine throughout the East and Southeast, American chestnuts represented 25% of the trees in Eastern forests and provided one of the most important sources of food for wildlife. Today, it is estimated that fewer than 100 mature trees remain in the tree's former range, though giant American chestnuts can be found in the American West, where the trees have been untouched by the blight.
Most of the Huntingdon trees were grown in the American Chestnut Foundation, Alabama Chapter, state orchard in Muscle Shoals and were developed to have a greater degree of disease resistance. Two of the trees planted were among the first grown from 17,000 seeds produced by the American Chestnut Foundation's national orchard through six generations of genetic back-crossing to achieve a tree that has a natural resistance to the deadly chestnut blight.
As the trees mature, their growth and hardiness will be monitored by students and faculty in the Huntingdon Department of Biology in consultation with faculty members in Auburn University's School of Forestry and Wildlife. The students and faculty will measure the trees' height, diameter, form, canopy size, and soil quality, among other factors, and will continually check for signs of chestnut blight. If the blight occurs, students will treat the trees accordingly.
The trees, planted as a tribute to Huntingdon benefactor George Gibbs, were donated to the College by the American Chestnut Foundation. The planting of the trees was funded by a generous gift from Philip and Angie Young.
Huntingdon President J. Cameron West said the tree-planting will have a number of benefits. "We are pleased to be a part of the effort to reintroduce the American chestnut to the area and to participate in the endeavor to save the tree," said West. "Our students and faculty welcome this collaborative project, which will certainly enrich their learning experience. At the same time, the planting will beautify the Huntingdon campus and honor a man who has spent a lifetime dedicated to the preservation and restoration of our country's forest lands."
George Gibbs, a graduate of North Carolina State University and a former Montgomery resident now living in Louisville, Kentucky, is a retired forester whose passion is the American chestnut tree. His association with Huntingdon began when his first wife, Mary Dell Matthews Gibbs '85, was recruited as a scholar-athlete to play for the Huntingdon women's tennis team. At the time, she was one of three women in her mid-40s recruited to play for the team, carrying the team to its first regional tournament and subsequently to two NAIA national tournaments. She majored in art and psychology, earned a 4.0 grade point average, and was recognized as a summa cum laude graduate at Commencement. Two years prior to her enrollment, the Gibbs' first son, David Wesley, was killed in car accident by a drunk driver the night before he was to begin his freshman college year. Mr. Gibbs has endowed scholarships at Huntingdon in memory of his first wife, who died of cancer at age 57 in 1994, and of their son, who had been a talented athlete and artist and a brilliant student. Mr. Gibbs is a member of the Order of the Countess of Huntingdon, the Hall of Honor, the John Massey Heritage Society, and the Huntingdon Society giving clubs.