Planting a Little Shade

Jul 6, 2015

If you’ve ever closely examined vintage Ellis photos, you know the town had even more big trees shading yards, parks, and walkways than exist today. Seeing old pictures made me think about trees growing around town. Fortunately, I didn’t have to look long before I found a history of local tree culture.

In the earliest Ellis Headlight newspapers, the editor frequently called upon citizens to plant more trees to beautify the town. Some of the earliest photos of Ellis’s Edwards Street, which is now 9th Street, reveal that the community rose from dusty prairie. There wasn’t a tree to shade a horse or human waiting on someone shopping at the mercantile or visiting the post office. The town needed trees.

Over the next few years, the Ellis Headlight promoted tree merchants and tree planting with missionary zeal. In March of 1882, Daniel Griest had 20,000 cottonwoods for sale. Descendants of and maybe a few original plantings offer a stout branch to support a swing or bird nest in Ellis today.

Not long after that report, the editor nearly shouted from the front page that the Meserve property on the Smoky Hill River sported a peach orchard growing 3,500 healthy peach trees. I’ve eaten some tasty peaches grown in Ellis, but apparently, the weather and moisture weren’t suitable to maintain a project that ambitious.

In October of 1882, a Topeka nursery sent a sales man to Ellis to promote ornamental and fruit trees. Among others, they advertised black locust and catalpa trees. This explains how towering catalpas with big heart-shaped leaves, frilly orchid-like blossoms, and long bean pods ended up shading areas throughout our dusty prairie town.

Choosing a tree to suit the western Kansas climate is a challenge even today. The catalpa offered a great choice to early homesteaders. It was drought and wind resistant, grew fast, and provided plenty of shade. Its wood made strong fence posts, a boon in the early years of settlement.

In the spring, frilled white catalpa blossoms rimmed with purple dots perfume the air with their sweet scent, attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. The beauty and fragrance had to bless homesick settlers who missed the foliage they left behind. 

In the fall, catalpas produce long bean pods that dangle from the outstretched branches. Some consider these yard litter, but imaginative children turn them into swords, pendulous earrings, and supplies for pioneer journeys. They add interest to autumn scenery and food supplies for overwintering critters.

Ellis’s landscape has changed several times over the years, from barren plain to heavily treed village to town with fewer trees but ample shade. Imagine a pioneer woman longing for a cool place to while away an afternoon. When that tree sales man promised a fast growing survivor that would also make a good fence post, her husband, eager to please his wife, got out his spade to plant an exotic looking sapling that folks in Ellis still enjoy.