The mystery of the giant sequoia

Western’s most famous tree holds its biggest mystery
Meri-Jo Borzilleri
1926 newspaper clipping with headlines "Rearranging of Trees Begun in Spring Finished." "California Redwood Has Recently Been Placed in Front of Edens Hall. Is Twenty Years Old" "EFFECT IS BETTER""
This December 1926 story in the student newspaper, The Weekly Messenger, reports on big landscaping news, including the planting of a 20-year-old, nine-ton California redwood tree "that will in time tower above the hall.".
1928 areal photo of campus, showing Edens Hall, Old Main and Wilson Library
The redwood tree can be seen in its Edens corner in this 1928 areal photo.
photo of a large sequoia tree surrounded by earthmoving equipment
In 1969, workers moved this sequoia tree, originally a gift from the Miller family, to Old Main lawn. The tree originally stood between Wilson Library and Haggard Hall, but had to be moved for construction of a library expansion.

At the base of the giant sequoia near Edens Hall is an old plaque saying the tree, “a seedling in 1941,” was given by prominent psychologist Irving Miller. But it’s unlikely to be the same tree gifted by Miller, of Miller Hall fame, who taught here from 1917-1942. Western archivist Tony Kurtz, ’88, B.A., English and ’98, M.A., history, alerted by a friend suspecting a case of mistaken identity, started looking into it several years ago, examining letters and photos and files.  

His conclusion? In short, it’s too tall. A 79-year-old seedling, given the typical foot-per-year growth rate, would be in the 80- to 90-foot range. More evidence: An aerial photo of campus in 1928 shows a small tree with a similar outline. Research indicates a woman named Olive Leonard Bruce, the sister of a faculty member, planted the tree in her yard around the turn of the century and it was then transplanted to its current location. In addition, a 1909 alum is on record saying students referred to it as the Olive Bruce sequoia. Finally, Kurtz found a 1926 article in the student newspaper noting a 20-year-old, nine-ton sequoia had been planted in front of Edens “and will in time tower above the hall.”  

How did it get named for Miller, the noted education and psychology department chair? Kurtz’s findings show his family did donate a sequoia in 1941, planted on the Wilson Library’s south side. In 1969 the beloved tree and plaque was moved, at no small expense, to make way for the library’s final expansion. But it withered and died a year after it was replanted.  

 “I don’t know for the life of me why the plaque was put in front of the tree in front of Edens,” he says. Maybe guilt over a gift that died? “The tree that Dr. Miller left was a wonderful gesture,” Kurtz says. “Somehow that has been grafted onto this (Olive Bruce) tree…It just shows you how easy it can be to have something forgotten.” 

A 1925 photo of Edens Hall exterior
In 1925, Edens Hall before the giant sequoia.
1926 newspaper page
WWU has been crazy about trees for a century: This 1926 story about the giant sequoia got more front page ink than an item about a campus visit by acclaimed poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg.
1945 photo of Edens Hall, with the top of the redwood tree jutting up over the top of the building's roof
By 1945, the "towering" potential of the sequoia was obvious.
1971 Western Front newspaper clipping with the headline, "Once a Twig; Now a Toothpick"
By 1971, it was clear the Miller sequoia hadn't survived its move, reported the Western Front.

Photos by WWU Archives