A visitor driving through Vassar's Main Gate today is likely to be as awed by the magnificence of the landscape as by the grandeur of Main Building, but this wasn't always the case. The largest building in the country when it was completed in 1865, Main was set on an open, treeless plain, the site of the former Dutchess County Racetrack. The class of 1868 planted the first tree, a swamp white oak, in front of Main, thereby initiating the tradition of the Class Tree. Almost every class since has either planted or adopted a tree, making a significant contribution to the development of the campus arboretum. In 2005, the arboretum comprised over 200 species and literally thousands of specimens. A Class Tree can be recognized by a marker placed at the base, identifying the class to whom it belongs.
While the Class Tree has been a constant throughout Vassar's history, the ceremonies surrounding the choosing of the tree have changed. In 1959, Poughkeepsie journalist Helen Myers interviewed Dorothy Plum '22, the librarian in charge of Vassariana, and the coauthor of The Great Experiment: A Chronicle of Vassar (1961) about the tree ceremonies. Myers's article, "Tree Rites Once Crowded Campus With Vassar 'Sprites' and 'Ghosts'", traced the early history. The first class to graduate, the class of 1867, planted ivy on Main Building as part of its Class Day exercises, but the ivy died, and so the next class, 1868, planted a tree instead—the white swamp oak—and they used Matthew Vassar's silver spade to dig the hole. The next class, 1869, "buried its records when it planted its tree, an American elm, in front of the college building." The class of 1870 added to the ritual by handing down the spade to the juniors. By the late 1870s, the tree ceremony had become a sophomore event, with sophomores choosing a tree, which would then become a gathering place to celebrate important occasions in their life as a class, both during and after their years at Vassar. In these early days, when graduating classes were relatively small, diplomas were given out randomly in the commencement ceremony, and afterwards the class formed a circle around its tree, and the documents were passed around, each graduate withdrawing from the group as she received her own diploma.
Around 1884, the tree ceremonies evolved into "secret rites, observed only by the class concerned." But the secrecy, of course, posed an irresistible challenge to the freshmen, who occasionally figured out when and where the ceremony was going to happen and crashed it. The secret ceremonies became increasingly elaborate, and the sophomores went to ever-more gleeful lengths to fool the freshmen. The class of 1902 transformed themselves into "fire-lit Amazons" with "flashing swords and gleaming helmets" dancing around their tree at 4 a.m. The faculty tried to apply the brakes, ordering the next class of sophomores to post a notice of the time and place of their upcoming ceremonies 24 hours in advance. They "complied" by putting up their notices "for several hours each night until they had a total of 24."
The class of 1907 went so far as to hold a mock tree ceremony to outfox the freshman spies, an event which was described in some detail the following day in The Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle: "The entire class of about 250 dressed in sheets like ghosts, and 10 very tall girls of the class wore black skeletons. They were the shades of tree ceremonies of former years. The procession marched in a slow line around the campus until it came to a sickly little tree." Then one of the characters blew a horn "to call together all the fairies of the realm. After a few notes had been blown, the fairies began to come. All calling and answering each other, they flitted through the trees, surrounding the circle, and danced to the tree. About half of them were dressed in green and carried tiny lights, which they waved in their hands. The rest were all in pale colors with long flowing sleeves and robes. Their hair was wound with tinsel, and they had little sparkling wings on their shoulders."
The last burial of records took place in 1909 on Class Day, possibly because the grounds keepers weren't all that keen on digging a hole big enough to accommodate the class records and Class Day bouquets of 250 seniors. But sophomores continued to dream up ever-more elaborate pageants. The class of 1913 appeared as sun worshippers—"white-gowned and veiled figures" with golden bands encircling their reverently bowed heads." The class of 1915 carried doves, "which, when released, flew up from every part of the circle as it closed, and fluttered among the branches of the tree."
According to Myers, the last sophomore tree ceremonies were held in 1944. Because of WWII, the college went on a three-year plan, and the tree ceremony became a freshman event. Perhaps because of the war, the festivities were scaled back and afterwards were never fully reinstated. "There's an entirely different concept of living now," Plum told Myers. "The students don't have to manufacture things to keep them happy. They aren't here as much on weekends. Cars—cars in general, for they don't have them on campus—radios, television, have all changed the students' life."
The tradition survived the 1969 move to coeducation, but over the years, student interest in selecting or planting a tree has waxed and waned. Today, it is once again the prerogative of the senior class to make the arrangements. Second semester, senior year, the Senior Class Council confers with the horticulturist to select a tree and plan the dedication ceremony, usually held right after the commencement rehearsal, and usually not very well attended. However, the ceremony may be making a comeback. With nearly half its members in attendance, the class of 2005 planted an American elm next to the Chapel; Ron Sharp, dean of the faculty, offered some remarks, as did the Vassar horticulturist Jeff Horst. "We enticed them with champagne and strawberries dipped in chocolate," said Horst.
Recent years have also seen a few variations on the tradition, as some graduating classes chose an enhancement of the grounds as their Class Gifts in substitution for the designation of a Class Tree. The class of 1996 refurbished the fountain in the Pratt House garden in lieu of a tree; the class of 1997 buried a time capsule in a cement vault by the Terrace Apartments bridge; and the class of 2000 created a pond with indigenous flowering plants near Sunset Lake.
Helen Myers, "Tree Rites Once Crowded Campus With Vassar `Sprites’ and `Ghosts’," The Poughkeepsie New Yorker, 1959
Interview with Jeff Horst, Vassar College Horticulturist, 2005