On a hot afternoon in late September, staff, volunteers, and friends gathered at the Forest Theatre on the University of North Carolina campus to celebrate the opening of a renovated and improved trail system in Battle Park. Little more than a year after the North Carolina Botanical Garden took over the management of the 93-acre natural area in the heart of Chapel Hill, the Garden invited the community to see for themselves what curator Stephen Keith, staff members Bob Peoples and Lee Davis, intern Autumn Thoyre, and a host of volunteers and others from the University had accomplished in that year. After speeches, congratulations, and a delicious cake feast, Stephen led guests on a hike along the new trails.
The following remarks were made by Garden Director Peter White, as he greeted the crowd from the stage of Forest Theatre on Friday, September 23, 2005:
In May 2004, I received a call from Chancellor Moeser asking if the Garden was interested in taking over the management of Battle Park. I was thrilled, for I had treasured Battle Park and Forest Theatre for years and believed they could become striking jewels in the crown of the Botanical Garden.
I don’t think that anyone comes into the silence and shade of the trees of Battle Park without falling in love with that old forest. And I don’t think anyone visits the Forest Theatre without sensing that the old stones speak of history, the arts, and human lives.
Kemp Plummer Battle served the University as president from 1876 to 1891. He grew up next to this forest, and he was responsible for turning the wilderness into a sylvan vale of trails, seats, and picnic spots. He wrote wonderful words about the value of these woods to the campus, students, and the community. The woods became known as Battle Park because of President Battle’s love for this place.
Battle Park makes Chapel Hill unique. The beating heart of this town, right at its center, is this old forest. Battle Park brings the opportunity for retreat and solace and for the physical exercise and health we all need.
We treasure Battle Park because it brings us a sense of the original Piedmont landscape, a landscape that has been lived in — first by Native Americans and then by the new Americans. But these woods were woods in 1800, and in 1700 and 1600. They are what I call a “forest of continuity.” Although not pristine (fuel and lumber were removed, and livestock foraged for acorns in the fall), they were never clear-cut all at once, were never a field or pasture — always simply woods. There are 200-year-old trees here, soaring hardwoods that tell us about nature and history in the Piedmont.
The history and legacy of the Park also make us treasure it. Kemp Battle wrote down the following story in 1912:
“What started me opening the paths through [Battle Park] was the circumstance that in getting ready to deliver the valedictory at my graduation in 1849, I resorted to the vicinity of a lofty poplar in the middle of the woods as a retired place for the rehearsal of my oration. A projecting rock was Venerable President, a clump of bushes Respected Faculty, a larger clump Fellow Students, and a smaller group, Beloved Classmates. . . . When I returned to Chapel Hill as President, I provided a seat under the poplar so that by reading an interesting book or journal in that secluded spot I might forget for a time my University cares.”
And so President Battle continued to build trails and give names to places: Trysting Poplar, Anemone Spring, Fairy Vale, Lion Rock, Over Stream Seat, Vale of Ione, Woodthrush Home.
There is more history and legacy. William Coker helped Frederick Koch pick the spot for Forest Theatre, and in July 1919, the Theatre saw its first performance. In 1951, the University Trustees recognized the value of these woods. But even then, they also worried about encroachments and threats. They passed a resolution reserving the land for park purposes — “for the primeval forests, winding streams, amidst rocky ridges of beautiful lands.” In 1971, the park became part of the National Registry of Historic Places along with the Town of Chapel Hill Historic District.
We treasure Battle Park because it protects the plants and animals of this old woodland. We treasure it for its potential for university teaching and research, and for public education on botanical, ecological, and conservation themes. Please enjoy the woods and the trails today, but I also want you to imagine the future: additional trails and benches, nature hikes and lectures, restored woods, and a restored Forest Theatre, once again a vibrant center for performance on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.