Family reveals secrets about 'Mema's Tree,' 170-year-old Southern Magnolia on Virginia college campus

Student: 'It’s a lot of history... I feel like it’s definitely important'
Posted at 11:43 PM, May 01, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-02 19:01:08-04

ETTRICK, Va. — For nearly two centuries, a Southern Magnolia tree has towered over the campus of Virginia State University.

The 170-year-old tree, which was planted in the front yard of a home built in the 1800s, now has an honored spot on the campus.

Southern Magnolia VSU Meemaw's Tree

Nancy Chadwick, whose great-grandfather planted the tree sometime between 1851 and 1852, has fond memories of growing up at the homeplace.

“Well we used to climb it all the time, we hid our money up in the tree,” Chadwick recalled.

Southern Magnolia VSU Meemaw's Tree
Nancy Chadwick

When Chadwick’s son, Scott, was born, a visit to his Mema’s meant two things.

“You ate and you climbed Mema's tree,” Christian Scott Wamsley Trent said. “You could grab on that limb, kick your legs up, scramble up the tree. You’d spend all afternoon in the tree.”

But the quest usually meant climbing to the top.

“When you get up to the top of this tree, and you’re just sitting there looking across the river," he said. "And to Petersburg and see the church steeples and stuff, you realize you are in heaven."

Southern Magnolia VSU Meemaw's Tree

While the tree is visible to all, there are a few secrets hidden in plain sight, including one leftover from a winter storm.

“One year in particular, a big section of the tree broke off and my father got my oldest brother to go up and chain part of the tree back together,” Chadwick said. “So the chain is still up there too.”

Southern Magnolia VSU Meemaw's Tree

Then there is a set of chains that helped keep people swinging for decades.

Along the way, the tree saw the creation of Virginia State University and its expansion through the decades.

“The university has been a big part of us, our experience here too,” Trent said.

Southern Magnolia VSU Meemaw's Tree

As the years rolled by, the tree grew and the family spread out. Eventually, the homestead sat empty before the family sold the property to VSU last year.

While the old homeplace was torn down to make way for future college students, the family made one request: try to save the tree.

“When I first walked up and saw, after they had cleared the homes off the property, it was devastating,” Trent admitted. “It was the saddest experience you could imagine where your ancestral family home is gone. But the tree was still here. I was like, ‘Thank God.’”

Southern Magnolia VSU Meemaw's Tree
Herring Family Homeplace

VSU is a Tree Campus USA University, so the 60-foot tree with deep roots is not going anywhere.

“This tree here will mitigate probably 18,000 gallons of rainwater per year by what’s called inflow,” Joel Koci with VSU explained. “It comes through the foliage, through the twigs, through the limbs, through the trunk and then infiltrates the ground.”

While its climbing days are over, students are fascinated with its story and that the college saved it.

“It’s a lot of history,” Shayante Williams, a senior at the university, said. “So to see and know that it’s been here and seen all this built, I feel like it’s definitely important.”

Southern Magnolia VSU Meemaw's Tree

Trent is hopeful the family's magnolia tree will be around in 2076 when the country celebrates its tricentennial.

And while the Southern Magnolia is the oldest tree on VSU’s campus, there is amore than 300-year-old cucumber tree a couple of miles away in Colonial Heights.

Your Voice Your Community

A Tree Grows in Colonial Heights: ‘It’s 300 years old and has seen an awful lot of history’

Mike Bergazzi
6:06 PM, Oct 10, 2019

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