Orange Grove to Urban Oasis

An Idea Takes Root

In the fall of 1970, an idea was born. Dr. David Walkington, Dr. Eugene Jones and other faculty members and students at California State College, Fullerton began to discuss developing an arboretum on a parcel of land at the northern end of the campus.

An orange grove on this property had a disease known as “quick decline.” Most of the area was a field of wild mustard and there was little hope for saving any of the trees. The neglected land had been part of the Gillman lands. Richard Gilman founded the first commercial Valencia orange grove in California.

A group of faculty wives led by Teri Jones sought community support for development of the acreage. The Arboretum Committee was formed and to everyone’s surprise and delight won a Disneyland Community Service Award for its environmental efforts. In 1971, the Associated Students of Cal State College began a drive to raise funds for the project.

Dr. Franz Dolp and Dr. Jones of the faculty began an attempt to salvage some of the citrus trees, but the effort was more successful in getting student and community support than it was in saving the doomed trees. The student and faculty group then planned to use an area of the land for organic gardening plots to demonstrate the environmental values of that type of gardening. In the winter of that year, a tree cutting time was set and the dead trees were cut down, their roots were removed and their wood sold for firewood and later used for surfacing of paths in the area.

Arboretum Society Formed

In 1972, the college became California State University, Fullerton. After substantial lobbying by interested citizens, the California State University Trustees considered setting aside land for a botanical garden, the first of its kind on university land in the state. This was followed by the formation of an Arboretum Society that began a series of fund-raising activities on campus to build a fund for the future botanical garden.

Coincidentally, a group of citizens, again led by faculty wives and other interested local women, located a historic house in Fullerton which was slated to be moved or destroyed. It was eventually moved to the land designated for the Arboretum and named Heritage House.

The Arboretum Society sought assistance from the City of Fullerton to further the idea of Fullerton Arboretum, the first serious effort to receive official community support for the project.

University President Dr. L. Donald Shields became involved in the development process assisted by Vice President James Sharp, who became the point man from the university. In January of 1972, the Trustees of the California State University system gave approval to the planning of a botanical garden at CSUF and a month later set aside the 26 acres for the project.

Initially, students and faculty at sister CSU campus Cal Poly Pomona were responsible for planning the project. Cal Poly’s curriculum in landscape design and related fields were thought to be a good fit with the project. Early plans included an amphitheater to be used by performing arts students, but interest in this aspect declined as on-campus facilities were approved.

In early 1972, a community group called the Friends of Fullerton Arboretum formed to pursue the goals of development. This group was an outgrowth of the Arboretum Society. The Friends organization was chartered as a tax-exempt, nonprofit corporation and was granted a license to raise funds for the development of the Arboretum.

Weeds, Seeds and Garden Needs

University students, faculty and the community began to show increasing enthusiasm over development of the grounds which were originally viewed as a parking lot. Various people began organizing fund-raising events. The first plant sale, “Weeds, Seeds and Garden Needs” was held in the spring of 1971, and later evolved into the popular annual Green Scene Garden Show.

Students at Cal Poly Pomona provided a number of examples of how an arboretum might look to university architect Bill Bridges in January 1972. An estimated cost of $75,000 grew to $750,000 by the time the project became reality. Community interest was supported by the nationwide bicentennial celebration and fundraising materialized from several sources. In 1976, university trustees and the city of Fullerton named the landscape architect firm of Bridgers and Troller to complete schematic drawings. Contractor Goodman and Pelogran of La Habra was awarded a $621,000 bid to begin construction in October of 1977.

Throughout the first 20 years of arboretum development and growth, the day-to-day efforts of Dorothy Callison as assistant to the various Directors and Friends leadership was of utmost importance in maintaining continuity and good relationships with the University and the city.

Broad Community Support

As evidence of broad community support, the Redevelopment Agency of the City of Fullerton entered into a precedent-setting Joint Powers Agreement with the University. Through this agreement, the Agency agreed to finance the initial grading and construction costs and then co-operate in funding basic operations until the year 2020. The agreement also established a public entity, the Arboretum Commission, containing city and university appointees, to govern the Arboretum for that period.

Before construction, Leo Song, who was university greenhouse manager, was gathering plants. His efforts would eventually be the basis of worldwide plant variety that characterizes the Arboretum. Part-time worker Celia Kutcher also was accumulating and identifying more than 600 plants. One of the Arboretum’s original commissioners, Fred Mason, has vivid memories of extensive debates about whether it would be best to spend money on larger ten-gallon can trees or the five-gallon size. The five-gallon was chosen and plants thrived. As plantings continued, the Arboretum Commission sponsored several “Big Digs,” inviting people from the community to join in Saturday planting days. An early planting on the land which preceded any formal plans was the Ombu tree (Phytolacca dioica x weberbaueri), a cross between two native South American trees. This tree, dating back to 1970, thus predating the Arboretum as a whole, is now one of the major attractions of a forested section of the grounds. Supervision of the grounds by John Copeland, Rico Montenegro, Glen Williams and Chris Barnhill were vital to the selection, maintenance and growth of the plant collection.

Groundbreaking and Construction

At 1 p.m. on Sunday, December 11, 1977, Dr. C. Eugene Jones presided over a formal ceremony. The event included a flag raising by Boy Scout Troop #74, music by the Orange Empire Barbershop Chorus and speakers CSUF President L. Donald Shields and City of Fullerton Mayor Duane Winters. The groundbreaking featured Commission President Martha McCarthy, as well as Teri Jones of the Friends and other commissioners. Citizens had the opportunity to become life or corporate members of the Friends, their names to be on permanent plaques near the entrance yet to be constructed. The event attracted considerable public attention and attendant press publicity. It is impossible to give too much credit to Dr. C. Eugene Jones, the first director, for the establishment and early growth of the Arboretum. Jones and his wife, Teri Jones, were for the entire period of development, influential in gathering support from the university system and community members to make the Arboretum a reality.

As the first construction phase of the Arboretum began, a small storage building was noted. The grounds construction crew wanted it for an office, but early community supporters who became part of the Friends of the Arboretum quickly established a gift shop committee with an eye to fundraising. Adrienne Ford, Wanda Ferren and Pat Sawyer organized the task. By the end of the week, the building had shelves, a counter, a gazebo and volunteers to act as sales people. It had everything but merchandise to sell, noted Pat Sawyer who became the first volunteer coordinator of the shop.

When trees were needed for foresting the grounds in the early 1970s, a program called Trees for Arboretum Growth, TAG began. Hundreds of memorial trees were planted. However, over the years, many were destroyed by storms and other events and TAG was discontinued. Memorial gifts were noted in a Book of Remembrance. Today, some of the original gift trees remain. The earth moving and installation of irrigation system, a waterfall, the pond and lake systems with recirculating water and various plantings took place over many months.

Opening Ceremonies

Although the grounds were already open to the public, the official opening ceremonies and ribbon cutting took place on Sunday, October 21, 1979. The program opened with a rousing medley by the CSUF Varsity Band conducted by Don Gunderson. Following a welcome by City of Fullerton Director of Community Services, Dr. N. Allen Riley led the dedication, CSUF President L. Donald Shields spoke on “The Arboretum: Educational Implications.” Fullerton Mayor Louis Velasquez added his remarks on “The Arboretum and the Community." Finally, the ribbon cutting was performed by President Shields and Mayor Velasquez and guests were invited to take the first official tours of the gardens and enjoy refreshments served under the wisteria arbor.

From time to time, the plantings are modified to allow for improvement. The 2004 construction of a new visitors’ center with classrooms, community-use pavilion, museum and other improvements made it necessary to move the nursery, plant propagation area and other features to another part of the grounds.

Joint Exercise of Powers Agreement

A Joint Exercise of Powers Agreement between the Redevelopment Agency of the City of Fullerton and the Trustees of the California State University on March 24, 1976 created Fullerton Arboretum Authority. Under the terms of the Joint Powers Agreement, the Arboretum Authority was governed by a seven-member Commission.  The Joint Powers Agreement ended December 3, 2020, making Fullerton Arboretum a fully integrated department within the self-support division of Extension and International Programs at CSUF.

The Arboretum is located on 26 acres of CSU-owned land at the north end of the CSUF campus.

The director of the Arboretum is responsible for the operations of the gardens. The director was initially a faculty member from the biology department of CSUF. The assignment was later divided between the biology department and the Arboretum. In later years, the director’s position was held by other faculty members or administrators, still on a part-time basis. The first full-time director, Gregory Dyment, joined the Arboretum in 1997.

The Friends of Fullerton Arboretum

The commission formalized the Friends as a nonprofit corporation, establishing a license and support agreement in 1982. Friends took on the tasks of fundraising, education, gift shop sales and operations. Quickly the Friends began plant sales and other efforts. Originally an all-volunteer organization, the Friends eventually hired staff to handle the increasing schedule of fundraising sales, events and other activities. Among the new tasks of the organization was creation of a public relations program for the Arboretum.

Starting in 1974, community leaders considered staging a plant show as a fund-raising activity for the future arboretum. With typical enthusiasm, arrangements were made to hold what was essentially a flower show in some of the temporary buildings on the CSU campus. This spring event became the Green Scene Garden Show, a premier garden event in Southern California that raised much needed annual support for the Arboretum. 

For some years, the Friends supported plans to build a Visitors’ Center on the grounds to include areas for community use, a museum and classrooms. A new nursery/greenhouse and plant sales area was completed in 2004. With support from the city, generous private donors and civic groups, the long anticipated groundbreaking was held and construction of the Visitors' Center begun in the fall of 2004. This was during the 25th anniversary year of the official opening of the Arboretum to the community.

The Friends of Fullerton Arboretum are a strong and successful non-profit support group committed for the past 50 years to implementing the mission of the Arboretum.  The organization has contributed millions of dollars of funding, volunteer services, scholarships and stipends.  They also support student success though university research, cultural and environmental sustainability projects.  The Friends host fundraising events for the Arboretum and foster valuable community relationships and campus goodwill.

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