Story posted September 03, 2010
Author: John Cross '76, Secretary of Development and College Relations
In recent years the senior class has gathered a few days before Commencement by a small oak tree on the quad near Searles Science Building for speeches, a toast, and a reception. The “new” Thorndike Oak, encircled by a hexagonal bench, evokes memories of an ancient tree that once stood on that spot – a tree that shared its beginnings and its growth with the young Bowdoin College.
The narrative begins late in September of 1802, after the opening of the College and immediately following the first chapel service in Massachusetts Hall. Thirteen-year-old George Thorndike of Beverly, Massachusetts, one of eight students in Bowdoin’s first class of 1806, picked up an acorn outside Massachusetts Hall. Using a drumstick borrowed from President Joseph McKeen’s youngest son, James, he dug a hole and dropped in the acorn. Thorndike is reported to have said that while he may have lacked the genius or ambition to achieve distinction in law, medicine, or the ministry, the tree that he had planted would outlast his classmates and their fame. The following spring Thorndike moved the seedling to the edge of the president’s garden, where it was tended in later years by McKeen and by his successor, Jesse Appleton.
Despite the best research efforts of the late Ernst Helmreich, Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of History and Political Science Emeritus, we know very few details about George Thorndike’s life. He graduated in 1806, received a degree from Harvard in 1807, and returned to Bowdoin for an honorary A.M. degree in 1810. He died in 1811 at age 21 in St. Petersburg, Russia, the first graduate of the College to die. We don’t know what he was doing in St. Petersburg (although it was probably linked to his father’s affairs in international commerce), we don’t know the cause of his death, and we don’t know where he was buried.
The Thorndike Oak became a living metaphor for the beginning of the College, and its story was a common bond shared by generations of alumni. It was a meeting place for students – where Class Day awards were handed out, where speeches, poems, and class odes were delivered, and where the pipe of peace was smoked. By the middle of the 20th century the Thorndike Oak showed signs of declining health – it produced little green growth, and the cavities in the trunk that had opened through decay had been filled with concrete. The tree was removed in the early 1980s, its significance largely unknown to students. A slice from the trunk of the oak is on display in Hubbard Hall, and in the variable thickness of its concentric growth rings it preserves a climate history of Bowdoin’s first 180 years. Several acorns collected from the original Thorndike Oak have grown into vigorous and mature trees in Brunswick and elsewhere over the years.
Through the support and encouragement of David Thorndike ’46 (whose own roots may be traced back to George Thorndike’s family) a new red oak, symbolic of the original but not descended from it, was dedicated in 1996. The young tree succumbed to a Maine winter; a second “new” Thorndike Oak is now thriving, and the story of the Thorndike Oak has once again been reconnected with senior class traditions. The original oak was a literal chronometer for marking the College’s history, and the new oak that carries the Thorndike name honors that tradition and represents renewed growth and vigor.
I close this story with a recollection by New York Sun newspaper editor and early science fiction writer (and author of the lyrics for “Phi Chi”) Edwin Page Mitchell of the Class of 1871. Writing in 1867, he described a scene near the Thorndike Oak of “…five gentlemen of patriarchal aspect but hilarious demeanor in the act of dancing around the tree like children in a game of ‘round-the-ring-rosy’”. They were the five survivors of the eight graduates of the Class of 1817 – sophomores when the Battle of Waterloo was fought – back for their 50th Reunion. Among the five was James McKeen (Professor in the Medical College of Maine and Overseer of the College) who, 65 years earlier, had loaned his drumstick to young George Thorndike to plant the acorn that would become the Thorndike Oak.
With best wishes,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations
“I am convinced that the most important gift I received from Bowdoin was not what I learned here but what I began to unlearn here. Unlearning is more difficult than learning, and is especially useful to those of us—we are legion—whose minds have been clouded and whose hearts have been hardened by old and accustomed prejudices.” —Hodding Carter '27