The Durfee Conservatory
Durfee Conservatory

History: 1890 - Japanese maples from Mt. Fuji donated to Durfee

In nine short years, the fame of the new college had traveled far beyond the borders of the United States. The Japanese government, after a careful examination of various institutions in other countries, selected the Massachusetts Agricultural College as the model of choice for its own agricultural institution.

The Japanese had shown a methodical attention to the Massachusetts Agricultural College from its beginning. Plant gifts in 1870 from J. Neesima included 100 varieties of Japanese seed. Clark and Levi Stockbridge, the college's first professor of agriculture who went on to become its president, actively encouraged this relationship. In 1872-73 Japanese exchange students Geamon Youchi, Saitaro Naito, and Tenataro Yamao came to study. Under the direction of Stockbridge, they planted a garden outside Durfee to display selected plants of their native land. Interest in acquiring new plant varieties to identify improved or superior stock was high. Visits and overtures soon were followed by Japanese officials asking Clark to assist their efforts to establish an agricultural college on the northern temperate island of Hokkaido. Clark and two of his recent graduates, William Wheeler, 1874, and David Penhallow, 1875 were appointed to found the Sapporo Agricultural College, later to become Hokkaido Imperial University. During his absence, Stockbridge had full charge of the college.

Clark and his assistants arrived in Japan in the summer of 1876 and in eight and a half action-packed months arranged a course of study in farming, forestry, and fishing. A plant house modeled after Durfee Conservatory was constructed along with a New England style barn that still stands. Their mission, however, was two-fold. Clark was keen to select and gather new plant material. Discovery was his main goal. He forwarded his selections to the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University and then, after introduction, on to Durfee. Of special value were species collected from high latitudes. As a result of his efforts, new assortments of valuable plants from Japan were propagated in the United States. Gifts by Meiji Emperor Mutsuhito, Emperor Akihito's great-grandfather, may have also been made through the Japanese embassy. A popular legend seems to have been fostered this assumption, however, as plant labeling and written records were not a salient feature of the early campus archives. The first comprehensive list of verified campus plants did not appear until 1924 and no specific mention was ever made to plant gifts linked directly to Japanese royalty.

The campus landscape at its inception was practically free of trees and Clark was responsible for much of the early planting. The grounds around Durfee soon became an arboretum for the young trees and shrubs Clark and his associates had acquired.

A rhododendron garden was first planted in 1870s on the hillside back of Durfee, which today features several Japanese maples (Acer palmatum vars.) planted during that period. These are some of the most magnificent of the former seedlings gathered from Japanese locations including the base of Mount Fuji.

This is an edited excerpt from John Tristan's book,
A History of the Durfee Conservatory 1867-1992
Published by Sara Publishing © 1992
All rights reserved.