If you’ve looked at vintage Ellis photos, you know our town had even more big trees shading yards, parks, and walkways than we have today. Seeing those old photos made me wonder about trees I see growing around town. Fortunately, I didn’t have to look long before I found some history of tree culture in Ellis.
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 Ellis rose from dusty prairie. There wasn’t a tree to shade a horse while a person went into the mercantile to shop. 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. I suspect many of their descendants and maybe a few original plantings offer a branch for a swing or bird nest in Ellis today.
Not long after that report, the editor nearly shouted from the local page that the Meserve property on the Smoky Hill River sported a peach orchard with 3,500 healthy peach trees planted. I’ve eaten some tasty homegrown peaches in Ellis, but apparently the weather wasn’t suitable to maintain a large orchard.
In October of 1882, a Topeka nursery sent a salesman 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 in our dusty prairie town.
Choosing a tree to suit the western Kansas climate is a challenge even today. The catalpa provided a great choice for early homesteaders. It was drought and wind resistant. It 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 scent had to be a blessing to settlers who missed this part of their eastern memories.
In the fall, catalpas produce long bean pods that dangle from 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 shady place to while away an afternoon. When that tree salesman promised a fast growing survivor that might make a good fence post, her husband, eager to please his wife, got out his spade to plant an exotic looking tree that folks in Ellis enjoy today.