Locust Tree in The Pride of the Prairie
When Edna Clark was an eighth-grader at Central Park School in Topeka in 1913, she experienced a literary connection. Clark's teacher and principal, Madge E. Moore, had selected for class readings, The Price of the Prairie, by Margaret Hill McCarter. So taken with the novel was Clark, that she dreamt of the book and set about to make the dream become reality.
The scene with which Clark so strongly connected was set in Topeka in the late 19th century. The book's hero, Phil Baronet, had just completed a day's work when he accepted an invitation from a young lady to take an evening stroll in the countryside. Phil and Rachel gazed across Topeka's treeless skyline where they could see the State Capitol's East Wing under construction. As they reached a rise of ground they could see Lincoln College, which became Washburn University, and Phil suggested that they turn back.
It was a typical August in Kansas. Evening breezes had cooled the hot, sultry day and thunderheads were gathering in the west. Rachel enjoyed Phil's company and encouraged them to continue on to the one tree in view. "'Oh, let's go on to that tree. It's the only one here in this forsaken country. Let's pay our respects to it."
Baronet, intrigued by the lonely tree, observed, "not a tree broke the line of vision save this one sturdy young locust spreading its lacy foliage in dainty grace. . ." He noted with appreciation, "And yet this is a gritty sort of sapling to stand up here and grow and grow. I wonder if ever the town will reach out so far as this." Reluctantly, he agreed to keep walking.
Rachel's feelings became more apparent while Phil's discomfort increased. He decided he must tell her the truth. Phil bluntly explained that he could not return Rachel's affection for he had a girlfriend, "the light of his life," who lived in Springvale, the fictional name for Council Grove.
With Rachel weeping, Baronet walked her to her door and bid her goodnight. He turned again to the lonely tree, "'You blamed old sapling! If you ever tell what you saw to-night I hope you'll die by inches in a prairie fire.'"
As Baronet concluded his narration of the chapter, he acknowledged, "'I am told the tree is green and beautiful to-day, and it is far inside the city limits.'"
Published in 1910, McCarter's novel quickly became a success and proved a popular subject for Central Park School's eighth grade class. The students also learned that the locust tree depicted in the book was real and that it was located near their school.
Clark had a dream that her class would place a marker in honor of this famous tree. The next morning, she shared it with Moore who suggested that the dream should become reality.
"Why not do something that will be appreciated by everybody instead of just those at Central Park school?" Clark later said.
The 32 members of the class decided to forego their usual literary graduation program and prepare, instead, a musical program with an address by Mrs. Noble L. Prentis. The class of 1913 selected as their lasting memento a bronze tree marker. They contributed their dimes, nickels, and pennies to cover the cost of the plaque. In late May the class dedicated the marker, which reads:
Topeka's Oldest Tree,
8-A Class, May 1913.
Central Park School.
Clark went on to become a schoolteacher and later recalled the dedication. "'The marker was first attached to the trunk of the tree, but the tree kept on growing and my father (the late A.G. Clark) later took it down and set it at the foot of the tree.'"
Clara Johnston, a schoolteacher at Central Park School in 1913, acknowledged that the tree might not have been the oldest in the area, "'It was supposed to be the oldest tree between the statehouse and Shunganunga creek to the southwest.'"
Believed to date from the city's early history, the tree may have been full-grown when Kansas was opened as a territory in 1854. Trees commonly were planted as guideposts along the trail that carried travelers from Fort Leavenworth to the Santa Fe Trail junction near Burlingame. Nearly 100 years after the novel was published, the locust tree still stands on the southeast corner of Huntoon and Clay. Thanks to the class of 1913, generations have learned about Clark's dream and seen the old locust tree.
Entry: Locust Tree in The Pride of the Prairie
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: June 2011
Date Modified: March 2013
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.