Legends of the Popular Poplar of McCorkle Place

The National Society Daughters of the American Revolution chapter in Chapel Hill bears the name Davie Popular Chapter, taking its name from a living legacy on the UNC campus that stands more than 100 feet tall, is more than 16 feet in circumference, and is greater than 5 feet in diameter.

The University will celebrate its 220th birthday on October 12, 2013.  Morton volunteer/contributor Jack Hilliard takes a look at a campus landmark and Morton photography subject that is more than three centuries old.

Davie Poplar with fall foilage, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, circa 1970s.

Davie Poplar with fall foilage, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, circa 1970s.

The Davie Poplar Tree…a monarch, grander than its fellows, sending its branches far and wide, and drawing its life from every North Carolina County.

From The UNC Class Poem of 1893

The Funk & Wagnalls New College Standard Dictionary defines the word “legend” as “a narrative based partly on history but chiefly on popular tradition.”

Legend has it that a select committee headed by Revolutionary War general and legislator William Richardson Davie was appointed to settle on a specific site for the state university.  Davie, who was one of five North Carolina delegates to the 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia, had introduced the bill to charter the university in the state legislature in 1789.  On a warm summer day in 1792, exhausted after a long day of searching, Davie and his committee sat down to rest on the grassy lawn beneath a giant tulip poplar standing near the crest of the ridge popularly known as New Hope Chapel.  The search committee, as Archibald Henderson relates in his 1949 book The Campus of the First State University, “regaled themselves with exhilarating beverages,” and after a picnic lunch and a refreshing nap, the group “unanimously decided that it was useless to search further . . . no more beautiful or suitable spot could be found.”

The legend continues.  Almost a century later, Cornelia Phillips Spencer, who was instrumental in reopening the University following reconstruction, named the giant tree Davie Poplar.  (The 1925 edition of the UNC yearbook Yackety Yack describes the Davie Popular as “Nature’s Pisa-like commemoration of William R. Davie.”)  Longtime UNC history professor Hugh T. Lefler, however, always told his students that Fred Hargett headed the search committee—not William Davie—and Lefler stressed the point that the famous tree is a tulip poplar.  Therefore, according to Professor Lefler, the famous tree should be called “The Hargett Tulip.”

The “true” history of the site selection is likely based more on economic logic and has a rotating cast of players depending on who you ask.

The Board of Trustees, meeting in Hillsborough on August 1st, 1792, decided, from a list of seven possibilities, that the university should be located at Cyprus Bridge and New Hope because of its central location.  The trustees selected a committee of eight, representing the eight districts of the state, to go to New Hope and determine the exact location for the university.  William Davie was not one of the eight.

The neighbors surrounding New Hope made generous offers of land and money.  But the offer made by James Hogg topped all the others.  He offered 1100 acres of land, 780 dollars, and 150,000 bricks for the first building.  That coupled with the beauty of the area sealed the deal. The eight-man committee made the final selection in late November, 1792 and formally proposed that Chapel Hill be the site for the university on December 3rd.  So, perhaps the famous tree should be named for James Hogg.

Neither “The Hargett Tulip” or “The Hogg Poplar,” however, have the ring that “The Davie Poplar” has.

Davie Poplar, University of North Carolina, circa 1970 to early 1980s

Davie Poplar, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, circa 1970 to early 1980s.

A different legend goes something like this: if the Davie Poplar falls, then the university will also fall.  To this end, exceptional measures have been taken over the years to insure the tree remains upright.  In 1873, the tree was struck by lightning and in 1898 a severe windstorm damaged two large branches.  The tree was struck again by lightning in 1918.  These nature-inflicted woulds lead university officials and the class of 1918 to plant a grafting called Davie Jr. on March 16th, 1918.  More damage came in the form of an ice storm in 1966.  In the late 1970s, an irrigation plan was put into effect and likely saved the tree during the drought of 1986.

Davie Poplar, University of North Carolina, 1992.

Davie Poplar, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1992.

Then on 12 October 1993, as part of the University’s Bicentennial observance, Davie Poplar III was planted nearby from a seed from the original tree.  Also, 100 2-foot saplings from the original tree were distributed to 100 sixth-graders representing North Carolina’s 100 counties.  UNC Head Basketball Coach Dean Smith handed out the twigs from a flat-bed truck.  They were taken back to each county and planted.  In the October, 2013 issue of Carolina Alumni Review, there is a report on some of those planting, complete with a magnificent Hugh Morton image.  There is also a website at baby-davies.unc.edu to follow the project.

On September 6, 1996, Hurricane Fran tore through the Chapel Hill area badly damaging original Davie and once again, University officials struggled to keep the tree (and the university?) from falling.

And then there is a third and more recent legend that says if a couple kisses while sitting on the stone bench beneath the tree, the couple will marry.  I don’t know that we have any proof that legend number two and legend number three are true, but they live on as does the legend that William Richardson Davie rested under a giant tulip poplar in the summer of 1792 and helped create the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To prove it, there stands the 350-year-old popular poplar on the south end of McCorkle Place that has rightfully earned the love and admiration passed down through generations of students and faculty.

So, the next time you walk the bricks under the famous tree, tip your hat to Davie, to Hargett, and to Hogg.

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