About the Founder
The founder of the Arboretum, W. Gordon Belser, was a far-sighted individual whose Scotch-Irish forebears came to the to the United States in the 1750s. He was born in Summerton, SC in 1883 but came to Columbia in the early 1900s to study law and eventually to develop a very successful career in real estate law. In 1959 he deeded a tract of his property to the Biology Department of the University of South Carolina to serve as an outdoor teaching laboratory for students in the earth sciences. However, lack of maintenance funds, severe storms, and inevitable development of residential neighborhoods on the Arboretum borders brought about severe decline of the forest. Within a few decades it had deteriorated into a brush-infested woodlot filled with dying trees and tangles of vines.
History of the Land
Little information about prehistoric inhabitants in the vicinity of the present-day Belser Arboretum is available. Until recent years, archaeologists believed that most prehistoric Indian artifacts in South Carolina were found only along major waterways, but extensive excavations at nearby Fort Jackson and other upland sites have revealed new information. These digs are on sandy uplands, much like the Arboretum, often near natural springs and near the quartz needed for arrowheads; they are located several miles from a large river such as the Wateree or Broad River. One theory is that small bands of Indians roved through these uplands, stopping at the springs for water, hunting game at the springs, and flaking tools at the campsites. A natural spring is found in the center of the Arboretum, and pieces of quartz as well as arrowheads have been found.
The Belser Arboretum has a unique topographical diversity, reflecting multiple depositional and erosion events. These events have both marine and river elements that occurred over long periods of time, creating a topography, which includes high sand dunes, a deep valley and waterfalls.
With the passage of time, a number of environmental and man-made changes have had an impact on the Arboretum land. Storms, such as Hurricane Hugo in 1989, have felled many tall trees. The City of Columbia cleared trenches for sewer and storm drainage, which allowed for the invasion of non-native species and strangling vines. Encroachment by vines killed many of the native plants, even huge canopy trees. A new era started in 2006 when restoration began.
In 2006, the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina at Columbia urgently needed a terrestrial ecology field site for its many Biology Majors; all empty lots on the main campus had been taken for building sites. About 10 minutes drive from campus, however, was a 10-acre tract with great promise: The Belser Arboretum. The Arboretum tract had been gifted to the Biology Department in 1959 by W. Gordon Belser, and was still available but needed major brush clearing and the addition of facilities. A Committee quickly inventoried the resources available, summarized the problems, and made a Restoration Master Plan.
Restoration began in 2006, and for the five years following, amazing transformations occurred. The Restoration Phase (2006-2010) involved heavy duty clearing of the forest, planting of replacement trees to establish each of the 10 Biomes, building the Trail System and constructing the facilities for the Learning Programs. Much of the restoration was made possible by groups of enthusiastic volunteers and by the generosity of benefactors. For details on accomplishments achieved, see also the Restoration Phase section below.
Today the Arboretum is actively used recreationally by civic groups and the general public, and for learning programs at the University of South Carolina. Several USC professors add a class option for Service-Oriented Learning where students volunteer for Arboretum projects that relate to their course curriculum. Other professors make class assignments, which include a general community service component of the students' choosing, and often students choose the Arboretum for the service work.
Now that the Restoration Phase has been completed, the Arboretum has entered a Maintenance Phase, which includes tending the Botanical Garden and Exhibits, emphasizing the learning programs and expanding conservation outreach. Planning, care and maintenance is carried out by the Arboretum Director and Professor at the University of South Carolina's Department of Biological Sciences Dr. Patricia DeCoursey. A long-term staff assists with maintenance, including Gene Lindler, Foreman of the Work Crew, and his assistant Clayton Davis. Additional plans for growth are made possible by the generosity of benefactors. For details on upcoming maintenance plans, see also the Maintenance Phase section below.
2006 - Restoration Year One:
- Created the Botanical Garden.
- Eradicated kudzu and hundreds of giant cat briar vines.
- Established seed and rooting nurseries to provide thousands of cost-free plants needed in later years of restoration.
- Completed the Lindler Circle Trail .
- Filled the deep, 600-foot drainage trench that almost bisected the Arboretum. The Ladd Construction Company donated 1,000 cubic yards of fill dirt, as well as trucking transport, and compacting the dirt into the trench.
- Cleared undesirable vegetation from three Biomes and planted the needed canopy and understory sapling trees to restore these sites.
2007 - Restoration Year Two:
- Began USC class and general public visitations.
- Built two primitive outdoor classrooms.
- Added wrought-iron gates at the two entrances. Construction was completed by Owens Welding.
- Added more than 900 new plants.
- Built the Arboretum House complex, later to become the Museum and tool shed area.
- Began newsletter.
- Cleared undesirable vegetation from three more Biomes and planted the needed replacement canopy and understory species.
2008 - Restoration Year Three:
- Eradicated vines and continued clearing for an additional 1/3 of the Arboretum.
- Added more than 700 new plants.
- Added a new Blight-resistant American Chestnut Forest Biome (an Eagle Scout project).
- Installed 1,500 feet of vital water lines (an Eagle Scout project).
- Hosted over 50 groups of visitors during this year.
- Built an outdoor classroom. Construction was gifted by engineer John Thomas Calvin.
2009 - Restoration Year Four:
- Completed brush removal in all of the Biomes.
- Completed clearing along the Arboretum's 2,600 foot perimeter fence.
- Salvaged 10 truckloads of rock for restoration of the Riparian Biome.
- Added more than 500 new trees and shrubs.
- Added the Zen Meditation / Peace Exhibit and Zen Overlook Trail.
- Added the Museum.
- Bordered the Lindler Circle Trail with white-wave polished rocks discovered under the roots of two huge trees that fell in a violent storm.
- Received four naming opportunity gifts for the Belser Arboretum Endowment Fund.
- Established the Friends of the Belser Arboretum organization.
- Launched Arboretum website.
- Received three awards: City of Columbia Treasured Tree Award, Columbia Green Tree Initiative Grant, and the Columbia Green Top Choice Award for conservation and education.
2010 - Restoration Year Five:
- Held 2 Arbor Day events to prepare the ground for a new Native Magnolia/Azalea Exhibit. See Year 2011 for additional results.
- Rebuilt a section of the Wetland Biome in preparation for a new Orchard Exhibit with help from The Crape Myrtle Garden Club. See Year 2011 for additional results.
- Removed dead trees and stumps in the Wetland Biome.
- Completed the clearing and planting of the 10 Biomes.
- Hosted many USC classes and civic groups for learning programs.
- Featured on the front page of The State newspaper.
- Received a Columbia Green Tree Initiative Award for planting a new Native Magnolia/Azalea Exhibit.
- Received City of Columbia Treasured Tree Award for the giant bald cypress in the Bald Cypress Swamp Biome.
- Received a Garden Club of America Commendation for Conservation/Education.
- Received funds from University of South Carolina.
- Planted more than 275 trees and shrubs, including 2 commemorative blight-resistant American Elm trees to honor our Eagle Scouts.
- Hosted many volunteers who helped with restoration and maintenance projects.
- Filmed Hidden Columbia: The Secret Inside Sherwood Forest video with Andy Burns, ABC Columbia TV.
- Worked on the Arboretum Map. See Year 2011 for additional results.
- Created a Plant Exchange of seedling trees germinated and grown to sapling size in the Arboretum tree nurseries. The seedlings are gifted to various civic groups in exchange for their help with Arboretum projects.
- Continued the popular Monthly Open House programs to open the Arboretum monthly to the general public.
2011 - Maintenance Year One - Planned Projects:
- Hold Arbor Day tree planting event in conjunction with the Strom Thurmond Wellness & Fitness Center.
- Install electricity to the Caroline Belser Grimball Outdoor Classroom for computers, presentations and lighting for rainy days or evening programs.
- Add restroom facilities.
- Re-design and update the Arboretum website.
- Add permanent fencing to the Botanical Garden. The new fencing material will be wrought-iron posts with stainless steel wire.
- Add a retaining wall with donated Fairfield blue granite.
- Stabilize the waterfall with donated natural river stones.
- Plant four blight-resistant Restoration Chestnut seedlings. The Chestnut Restoration project is a result of 70 years of planning by the American Chestnut Foundation: the Carolinas Chapter of the Foundation generously gifted the Arboretum with four chestnut seedlings.
- Addition of two new botanical exhibits: a Native Magnolia/Azalea Exhibit and the Orchard Exhibit.
- Repair the 60-year old perimeter fence to remedy damage from multiple tree falls.
- Provide the official Arboretum Map as a handout to visitors.
- Permanently install 50 interpretive / informational signs along the Trails. These new signs will replace the temporary, paper signs.
- Remove of several large and potentially dangerous trees. Removal will be done by Sox and Freeman.
- Begin termite treatments.
- Update computer software.