Cheyenne’s Exciting Arboretum
A group of resolute citizens braved the elements this spring to take a tour sponsored by the Friends of the High Plains Arboretum, at the site of the former Cheyenne Horticultural Field Station located six miles northwest of Cheyenne, Wyo. The group hopes to restore, enhance and preserve the trees that were brought here from all over the world to the treeless plains. The inclement weather of the day added just the right dimension for understanding the weather conditions pioneers faced when they signed on as homesteaders on the High Plains of Wyoming.
The bundled up participants first gathered at the main greenhouse where Scott Skogerboe, chief Propagator at the Ft. Collins (Colorado) Nursery, was introduced by Shane Smith of Cheyenne’s Botanic Gardens. According to Lynn Simons, Chairperson of the Friends of the High Plains Arboretum, “Scott knows the station like no one else.” Scott’s blue eyes sparkled as he told the history of the facility and stories of the dedication of the men who worked here.
The 2,870-acre Cheyenne Horticultural Field Station was established in 1928 to conduct studies on alfalfa, cereal crops and livestock forage that could be raised on the dry lands of the Central Great Plains. Shortly thereafter, investigations of vegetables, fruits, ornamental plants and trees ensued. Studies were conducted on shelter belts and windbreaks, contour farming, terracing and progressive farming methods that kept the dream of agriculture on the treeless plains alive.
Construction of the impressive buildings (that still stand today) was completed during 1928-1934. In addition to the nine major two-story buildings, there were seven greenhouses, shops to repair and store farm machinery, three root cellars, two lath houses, and a mess hall. An extensive irrigation system was built from the construction of a lake and reservoir that provided the water to the seven miles of concrete irrigation canals. Labor for the canals was provided by young men employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Skogerboe’s colorful stories about the history of the station kept the visitors close as they followed their pied piper into the snow-covered fields of trees. Eventually the culprit mud convinced Scott and Shane to dismiss their followers in order to get everyone home safely. The tree enthusiasts returned a week later on a sunny Sunday afternoon to hear the rest of the story.
On that day Scott Skogerboe first explained the purpose of the lath house that allowed young seedlings to get started as everyone pulled on their hats to protect themselves from the blazing sun. As the group proceeded to the trees, I listened to Casey Hildreth, grandson of the first superintendent of the station who now lives in Laramie, Wyo. He told stories about the young men who came here to study horticulture and a funny tale of tearing up a field of tomatoes while learning to drive.
We caught up with the group as listened to Scott at his first stop. He invigorated the audience as spoke again and again of his “favorite” tree or shrub. When the station’s mission shifted to grassland research, the trees were not watered and the treasure of diverse trees began to vanish. Fifty percent of the trees inventoried in 1974 are gone. There is an urgent need to preserve those that remain.
Skogerboe spoke of the trees and shrubs in endearing language ” almost like his children. He knows the trees individually for he has examined their birth and death records in station journals. The trees the group hopes to save are located on 62 acres set aside by the federal government. Special varieties of hardy oak, hawthorn, buckeye, and fruit trees are endangered to lack of care and water. A master plan has been developed to preserve, restore and enhance the historic trees. The site can also function as a center for outdoor recreation, education and future releases to home gardeners.
Scott offered specific information on former administrators of the station. H.C. Hildreth served as Superintendent of the station from 1930 to 1964. Hildreth tested and bred 21 species of chrysanthemums during his tenure. His natural hybridization allowed only the hardiest mums to survive windy and cold climates. Buffalo, Maverick, Togwatee, Powder River and even a white Cheyenne mum were some of the Wyoming bred mums. Hildreth retired in 1959 and would later become the director of the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Gene S. Howard took over the reins of the station in 1964 and left an indelible imprint on the station. Howard concentrated on controlled pollinations or experiments done by hand on vegetables and fruit trees at the station. His life’s work influenced Scott Skogerboe who became a close friend. Skogerboe inherited many of the scientist’s journals and papers when Howard died some five years ago.
On Scott’s suggestion I returned twice to the site of the proposed arboretum to see the Cheyenne lilacs brought from Yagakujo Agricultural Experiment Station along the South Manchurian Railway that were planted in 1930 in full bloom. Cheyenne’s flowering crabapple trees taken from the Hung Hai Tung Crabapple taken from Fa Hue Szu Temple in China set our city in shades of pink and red about the same time. Now the historic mock orange ornamental bushes that grow near historic homes in Cheyenne are just getting set to bloom. And then hardy chrysanthemums will beautify our city this Fall. Amazing!
Now and then the hardy small fruits and berries ” Ft Laramie strawberries, Plainsman and Pathfinder raspberries can be sighted in the area. The photos at the station office show fields of vegetables such as tomatoes, asparagus and chicory, a once promising cash crop. Perhaps changing global circumstances and gas shortages will bring people to their senses and get them to grow gardens once again. But it is the trees that line our streets, shade our homes, and give us fruit that must be saved as we save an uncertain future. For more information on the proposed arboretum, you may call (307) 637-6458, or visit the web site, http://www.botanic.org/arboretum.
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