In 1941, a committee xplored the possibility of bringing William Richardson Davie back to Chapel Hill. A South Carolina newspaper scoffed at the ‘selfish pride of the alumni of the University of North Carolina.’ Selfish, perhaps. Pride, without question.
Rests, to This
of the Border
It was a hot day and, in search of a proper university site, an exhausted committee rested under the umbrage
of a giant poplar where they enjoyed
“exhilarating beverages” and a picnic lunch
and stole a nap. When he awoke, William
Richardson Davie was certain the committee’s mission was fulfilled. As he put it,
there was simply no more beautiful or
suitable spot for North Carolina’s state
university than the area around
New Hope Chapel.
Anyway, that’s the way the
story goes, and it’s as deeply
rooted as that aged tulip poplar
standing watch in the middle
of McCorkle Place.
Another story has it that
longtime resident and University advocate Cornelia Phillips
Spencer christened the tree in
the late 19th century. But our
living memorial’s special prominence was noted as early as 1853. It
was former Florida Gov. William D.
Moseley who, while reminiscing about
his days as a UNC student in 1818,
remembered the landmark and reverently
referred to it as “The Old Poplar.” As
steeped in tradition as it is, and we are,
perhaps some explanation is required.
First, as wonderful as the story is, the
founding of the University under the poplar
tree is, most likely, apocryphal. If the committee did, indeed, meet there, we’re not
even sure Davie was present. Here’s another
myth-buster, and you should take a seat for
this one. Our “tulip poplar” is more akin to
a magnolia than a poplar, says UNC arborist
Tom Bythell, but then again, we shouldn’t
allow the facts to get in the way of a good
story. One thing for certain, the Davie
Poplar has withstood the ravages of time.
NORTH CAROLINA COLLECTION
Honestly, it’s remarkable that it still
stands. Back in August 1873 — in the
darkest days of Reconstruction when the
University was closed — nature itself
punctuated the tough times when light-
ning struck the tree, splitting it from its
base to its upper branches. In August 1902,
high winds ripped two large limbs from
the landmark. Members of the class of
William Richardson Davie and
the tree of trees, circa 1918.
The scaffolding is no better
explained than the steel cables
once strung up to keep the tree
standing. As yet, it hasn’t needed any help.