Sharing Personal Stories of Penn’s Morris Arboretum

The history of the University of Pennsylvania’s Morris Arboretum has been chronicled in written stories over the years, but now an audio history series offers an insider’s view from people with strong ties to the organization from the early days to the present.

Started in 2014, the “Arboretum Voices” project offers information about the 128-year-old estate’s transition into the Arboretum it is today.

“Those stories, they’re not written down anywhere,” says Bob Gutowski, the Arboretum’s director of public programs. “We decided that, if we waited, we would lose a generation of wisdom and experience whose stories may not have been told.  Let’s get these before we lose the opportunity.”

On the oral-history webpage, Phoebe Driscoll, a relative of John and Lydia Morris, shares her thoughts and remembrances of her ancestors. 

“It makes me feel good to understand and see in concrete form, their great legacy, which means so much to so many people,” says Driscoll, who grew up in Baltimore and moved to Philadelphia in the 1960s.

In the interview, Driscoll recounts her mother’s memories of visits to the Morris’ summer home, originally known as Compton. Driscoll says her mother grew up across the street spent time at Compton, where the pet peacocks “scared her to death” because they were “pretty aggressive and very noisy.” 

For John Shober, an emeritus member of the Arboretum’s advisory board, the Arboretum became his haven for recovery from post-traumatic stress in 1957 after he served in the Army.  At a time when the arboretum wasn’t as well maintained as it is today, Shober would spend hours taking in the scenery on the grounds.

“I was going to law school at night, and I would take books over there and study,” says Shober. “It was a wasteland, but it was oddly comforting to me. It’s hard to explain, but this place had an atmosphere about it.” 

Shober would take his children to explore the arboretum,and then years later his grandchildren. Now, he brings his great-grandchildren.

Shober marvels about the Arboretum’s “handkerchief tree,” also known as Davidia involucrate or dove tree.

“The leaves look like giant handkerchiefs,” says Shober. “When they start coming down, you see these handkerchiefs coming down all over the ground.”

”These stories carry knowledge beyond the sum of the words,” says Gutowski.  “There’s a lot about transmitting values and what’s important about a place, what’s important about an experience.”

To hear more Arboretum Voices, go to:

Founded in 1887, the property on Northwestern Avenue in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia was the private estate of siblings John and Lydia Morris. After their deaths, the University was entrusted in 1932 with the administration of the estate and transforming it into a public arboretum and educational center.

The arboretum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is also the official arboretum of Pennsylvania.

Story Photo