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Sept. 28, 2010

DWU ‘Little Tree’ has roots in S.D.
Tom Lawrence • The Daily Republic

Members of Dakota Wesleyan University’s information technology department, Cindy Kiner, Jeremy Shoemaker and Wim Rosendahl, walk by The Little Tree That Never Grew on the DWU campus Monday. The tree was transplanted from the Bois Cache Creek area in 1963 when flood waters from Lake Oahe threatened it. Since being vandalized in 1968 and then grafted by the DWU biology department, it has grown to be more than 20 feet high. (Chris Huber/Republic Photo)

The Little Tree That Never Grew has never been forgotten by a group of Dakota Wesleyan University students. The small hackberry tree, located between Smith and Prather halls on the north end of the DWU campus, was planted there in 1963.

It has endured through the years, despite a major vandalism attack in 1968, and remains a symbol to many of the school. At 2 p.m. Friday, former members of a student chapter of the Friends of the Middle Border will hold a ceremony at the tree.

Ron Fuchs of Mitchell, a 1972 DWU graduate, is organizing the event. Fuchs said it’s important to commemorate the tree for several reasons, including the college’s 125th anniversary, which is being marked this weekend.

“I think because somebody spent an awful lot of time bringing it here to us, putting it on the campus,” Fuchs said Monday. “That was Leonard Jennewein.”

J. Leonard Jennewein, a DWU history and English professor from 1953 until his death in 1968, first came across the tree in 1950, according to published reports. In 1963, the tree, which was believed to be decades old, was in peril.

The hackberry tree was uprooted from the banks of the Missouri River near the small ghost town of Evarts in north-central South Dakota before the area was flooded by Lake Oahe, the massive reservoir behind the Oahe Dam.

It was called “The Little Tree That Never Grew” because area residents said it had remained the same size for 40 years. It was about 10 feet tall in 1963. Reportedly, Native American elders sat underneath the tree and a spring ritual was held at it every year when it sprouted leaves. Some said Natives held a rain ceremony near the tree. Jennewein was captivated by the legend and decided the tree didn’t deserve a watery grave. Two DWU staffers and five students drove to the area and, in an effort captured in a photo, uprooted it.

The South Dakota Department of History, a predecessor of the South Dakota State Historical Society, assisted the DWU group, and a plaque commemorating the event was placed by the tree in 1963. It stands there to this day.

Gordon “Gordy” Fosness, a 1957 DWU graduate, was in his second year as a basketball coach and athletic director at his alma mater when Jennewein appeared at his door in April 1963. It was a surprise, Fosness said, since the men weren’t close friends or colleagues, although he had a great deal of respect for the professor.

Jennewein has a special request for the young coach: Would he lead a group of people to uproot the “Indian medicine tree” and bring it to campus? “He asked me if I would head up the crew and take the students up,” Fosness recalled Monday.

Ed Sougstad, the college’s maintenance worker, drove a DWU vehicle to the area, Fosness said. He took the five students to his parents’ motel in Presho on April 11, 1963, before finishing the drive to the site of the tree on April 12. They had two vehicles, an old Army truck that DWU owned and a Jeep on loan from the state.

It was Good Friday during Easter weekend, Fosness remembered, but he said the work was anything was blessed. “I can tell you, it was the hardest day’s work of my life,” he said. “It was embedded in rock.”

He said two students, whom he recalled as Steve Benson and Don Gatzke, were a great help to him. Three other students, whom he said were Israelis attending DWU, sat on a hill and laughed as the work got tougher and tougher.

After hours of digging and pounding on the tree with a sledgehammer, the men finally wrapped a log chain around the base of the tree and formed a V with the two vehicles, Fosness said. The Jeep and the truck went back and forth and sawed the tree off as close to its base as they could, he said. “They told us to bring it back dead or alive,” he said. “They preferred alive.”

Fosness, who worked at DWU from 1961-1983, said they wrapped the tree in burlap bags and poured water on it. Sougstad then took off for Mitchell with the tree. Fosness said he didn’t see the tree planted on the campus but noticed it “took off and grew.”

The tree became a gathering spot for the Friends of the Middle Border students. Every spring, they would reenact the Native American ritual. The tree was venerated but it was also attacked. In 1968, a vandal or group of vandals cut off the top half of the tree.

The Tree That Never Grew had shrunk. It was now half the size it had been. No one was ever caught, Fuchs said.

Amazingly enough, the plucky little tree survived this attack. Fosness said a biology professor grafted the severed top back on it and the tree survived. “That sucker has to have nine lives,” he said.

The tree remains on campus. On Friday, alumni, former members of the Friends of the Middle Border student chapter and others will gather to honor this DWU landmark. The solemn event will evoke “basic Sioux spirituality,” Fuchs said. “We haven’t done this ceremony in 40 years,” he said.

After the ceremony, a reception will be held at the Dakota Discovery Museum. All are welcome.

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Last updated: 9/28/10