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A History as Strong as the Trees It Protects

Spring 2010

Foresters are essentially men of action. As a matter of fact, most of us enter forestry because, more than any other profession you might name, it offers a life of outdoor activity. In short, a career that is occasionally hard physically, but always interesting. Consequently, foresters as a class are prone to busy themselves with their daily tasks and leave the telling about them to others.

The Seedling, 1934-1935, Henry E. Clepper

Mont Alto's Science Hall
PSU Libraries
Mont Alto's Science Hall, completed in 1927, two years before the Forest Academy's merger with Penn State.

Foresters are indeed men of action. It was foresters who saved Pennsylvania from irreversible devastation, and it was they and their fellow forest enthusiasts that established the very first school for foresters in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania State Forest School (1903). The school itself only functioned under its own authority for 26 years, but there was an over 20 year campaign to establish the school in the 1800s, and the legacy and impact of the education that the school provided lives on today in the Penn State Mont Alto campus. The school and its rich history and accomplishments are a credit to its creators and predecessors.

Forestry Education began in Pennsylvania in response to the overwhelming destruction of Pennsylvania’s forests. In colonial times, the trees of the New World undoubtedly seemed endless to the colonists. Viewed more as obstacles than living organisms, trees were cleared by the acre to make way for construction and agriculture. Since the forests appeared to be inexhaustible, there was no obvious reason for the colonists to check their consumption or educate themselves on the proper way to harvest trees. These same forests, however, provided fuel, timber for buildings and other wooden implements, pure water, and certain kinds of food and clothing derived from trees and wild game. There weren’t many advocates for the forests back then, and very few heeded their warnings: even William Penn in 1681, with his public desires to plant trees and preserve woodlands, was virtually ignored.

Our nation was young at the time, and needed to harvest the forests’ resources in order to continue to grow; but our nation was also naïve about the effects of their rampant deforestation. Throughout the 1800s, timber barons cut down nearly all of Pennsylvania’s forests. They were joined by the charcoal industry; an ironworks furnace cleared roughly an acre of trees every day to make charcoal, a key ingredient in the iron making process. Not only was there over-logging, but reckless logging. As Elizabeth H. Thomas phrased it in her book A History of the Pennsylvania State Forest School 1903-1929, most loggers implemented a “cut out and get out” philosophy in which shoddy workmanship was the norm. It caused wildfires, flooding and erosion, all of which clogged the waterways with sediment and ash, severely limiting the forest’s ability to regenerate itself. Quoted in A Century of Forest Resources Education at Penn State, agricultural historian S. W. Fletcher wrote in 1955 that “There is no more shocking example of greed and utter disregard for public welfare than the ruthless devastation of the forests of Pennsylvania by the lumber companies between 1840 and 1900.”

By the late 1800s and early 1900s, it became evident to the public that the forests were suffering from the destructive impact of widespread logging and its effects. Pennsylvania led the nation in logging in 1870, and was still fourth in the nation in 1900. The reaction was an urgent realization that the forests and watersheds needed to be protected and managed. This did not happen overnight, however—pioneers in forestry education had to convince the people and public officials that there was a forestry crisis, and that there needed to be trained professionals to handle it.

Joseph Trimble Rothrock
Wikimedia Commons
Joseph Trimble Rothrock, 1839-1922, the "Father of Forestry."

“The growth of forestry in the commonwealth was essentially an indigenous development,” said Henry Clepper in his book Forestry Education in Pennsylvania, “principal credit for which belongs to Dr. Rothrock, who gave half his life to it.” Joseph Trimble Rothrock, M.D., was indeed was one of the leading men in the movement. Rothrock was a learned man in many fields. He was an Arctic explorer, botanist and medical doctor to name a few, and he made many expeditions around the world to collect samples and pictures of various flora and fauna. He was a Professor of Botany at Penn State when he was appointed as the Michaux Lecturer in 1877. His new duty involved giving a series of lectures (six or seven every year for fourteen years) in the Horticultural Hall in Philadelphia. Most of these lectures were illustrated with lantern slides, and in order to get the 700 or so that he needed for a single year of lecturing, Rothrock began to tour the commonwealth’s forests. Rothrock had always known and loved the forests of Pennsylvania, but his knowledge of their deplorable condition came from his exploration of the entire state’s forests. He was appalled by what he saw.

When William Penn first visited his “woods” in 1682, they covered almost 99% of the nearly 29 million acres that is now Pennsylvania; two hundred years later, Rothrock found that only half of that land was still forest. The trees were blatantly abused by many different companies, even tanneries who used hemlock tree bark in their tanning process. They were simply tearing trees down to peel the bark off, and leaving the trees themselves to rot. Logging debris was stacked about in loose piles or left there. In Pennsylvania in particular, the forests were not only plentiful, but uniquely diverse. There was a stunning variety of trees because of the natural blending of two different forest zones, north and south. This great asset of Pennsylvania’s made it a target; it was now a lumberman’s dream come true. The logging left behind vast wastelands that had little hope of engendering any flora and fauna ever again, and became so lifeless that they were known as the “Pennsylvania Deserts.”

During his time in Strasbourg, Rothrock saw the results of scientific forestry policies that had long been in effect in German forests, and this careful management of timber resources greatly impressed him. He became determined to produce the same results in the United States, even if he had to do it himself. He wanted to start educating foresters right away, and in light of Pennsylvania’s current devastation, Rothrock started talking conservation to anyone who would listen. His Michaux lectures now contained pleas for forest regeneration. He spoke about all the benefits forests could bring to a community: physical health (especially for those suffering from tuberculosis), hunting, fishing, hiking and family recreation, clean air and clean water, flood control and a more pleasant climate. Not only did he have to convince people of the benefits of forests, but also convince the lumber companies that forest management was profitable. If he could do that, he had a weapon more powerful than just his forestry speeches. Not many businessmen would plant, cultivate, and guard a crop that took decades to mature unless it would have a net return, and Rothrock aimed to prove that the there was a profit to be made in growing forests, and that the current form of logging would soon destroy their entire cash crop of trees. He managed to convince many loggers, according to Thomas, by not saying “Woodman, Spare that Tree,” but “Woodman, cut those trees judiciously.”

George H. Wirt
Forest History Society
George H. Wirt, 1880-1961, Pennsylvania's First State Forester.

His first pleas reached the ears of few, but over the next 20 years his conservation and recruitment efforts paid off. He was able gain support from such prominent people as Mira Lloyd Dock, a famous public lecturer, and George Hermann Wirt, the state’s first professionally trained forester. Rothrock was a key element in the formation of such establishments as the Pennsylvania Forestry Association (1886) and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (1895)—the first of its kind in the nation—but his greatest goal was to establish a forestry school in Pennsylvania. Rothrock struggled to start one at an existing university in Pennsylvania, including our own Pennsylvania State University, but none wanted to start a school which they thought had no future, and those that were vaguely interested had refused to make one on the scale that Rothrock desired. Fed up with trying to get someone else to build a forestry school, Rothrock decided to open one himself.

His first step was getting the land, which the Pennsylvania Forestry Association and several others sold him in abundance, and at a reasonable rate—on average about $2-$4 an acre, totaling about 33,000 acres. The portion that actually became the campus was that of the former Mont Alto Iron Company and some of its useful buildings, including the former home of the last ironmaster of that company (now Wiestling Hall). A definite plus was that there were well-graded roads throughout the estate, giving students and faculty an easy means of access to all areas of the forest. The campus was nestled nicely at the base of the South Mountain Ridge, bordering the Caledonia and Mont Alto forest reserves and a mile away from the village of Mont Alto, which became a good source of campus maintenance staff (gardeners, handymen, cooks, etc.). The closeness to the reserves and forests, and to some major cities (i.e.: Harrisburg, thanks to the nearby railroad system) were key elements in choosing this site for a campus. Most importantly were the numerous types of trees and terrain within reach. This meant that students could really study forestry, not just study about forestry—and extremely important distinction. Wirt, in his “Report of the State Forester” (1901-1902), said that forestry is primarily a study of nature and “can best be done under natural conditions rather than from text-books and dried specimens.” Rothrock further stressed this in an article for the Pennsylvania Forestry Association’s magazine, Forest Leaves (April 1916), by making the comparison that a forest is to a school of forestry as a hospital is to a medical student. The forest is the ‘final and best ‘laboratory’ for the forester.”

Next on Rothrock’s list was gathering faculty. He already had a long time friend and supporter in Mira Lloyd Dock, so getting her on board for lectures in botany was a simple task. George Wirt would act as the general professor of all forestry subjects. He was the son of Rothrock’s good friend Jacob Wirt, and it was Rothrock himself who convinced George Wirt to go to Biltmore Academy for forestry. That academy was the only one in America using the German system that Rothrock so admired, and so he was determined to have one of its graduates be a part of his school. Wirt’s tutelage in forestry was combined with that of Irvin C. Williams, a member of the bar and of the Forestry Commission, who taught commercial law. Rothrock added many more promising individuals to his faculty, but these were his primary instructors.

The third step was getting a student body. Rothrock wanted students who would actually work on the reserves during the school year and then continue in the state’s forestry service after they graduated. He proposed a radical idea to help them afford it: he wanted to give the students a free education in exchange for the manual labor involved with it and the understanding (backed up in a bond if need be) that this degree would lead to a job in the forestry department. The way Rothrock saw it, the students weren’t getting a free ride; instead, workers were being paid for the labor the forests so badly needed.

The hardest part of the process was getting the funding. In most places to which he initially turned he found reluctance and closed doors. With the help of his supporters, Rothrock got several bills pushed through the legislature, initiating a thorough investigation of the condition of the forests of Pennsylvania and stating the need for a forestry school, but nothing that gave way to action. Rothrock’s campaign had been in motion for over 20 years, but it was formally launched in October 1901 via an article in the Pennsylvania State Forestry Association’s magazine Forest Leaves, titled “A Suggested Pennsylvania Forestry School.” He outlined his ideas for the school, the curriculum and the financing he envisioned. A few of these ideas were considered too ambitious and were turned down, such as the number of students to be educated each year and how many years the degree took (Rothrock initially wanted 40 students per year earning a six year education); but the majority of these ideas were eventually incorporated into the school by its fourth year of existence. In January 1902, Rothrock’s commissioners set out to solicit a private citizen for their assistance. The citizen chosen was the legendary philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. The proposal for funds was turned down by Carnegie and the State, but Rothrock had an alternate plan.

Michaux State Forest
Wikimedia Commons
Michaux State Forest, near the Pennsylvania State Forest Academy, was the site of many firsts in forestry.

Rothrock fell back on what Elizabeth Thomas calls the fait accompli—French for “an accomplished fact.” Since asking for money to start a school wasn’t working, in his next solicitations to Carnegie and the legislature he presented a school already in operation and simply asked for funds to keep it going. This seems to have been a backup plan from the start of the schools conception: Wirt, Wirt’s sister, and a few student-assistants went to Mont Alto in April 1902 to start the commonwealth’s first forest tree nursery, make roads, build fences, and generally improve the land before school was officially in session. Wirt and his party were able to tear down the dilapidated buildings that remained on the property from the iron business and sell all the materials they didn’t need for their school for about $14,000. With all this progress made without much financial assistance, Rothrock and Wirt finally managed to convince the legislature to act. House Bill 33 was signed on May 13, 1903 by Governor Pennypacker, enacting the erection of the Mont Alto Forestry School and giving the sum of $16,000 to the cause.

Governor Pennypacker, together with Rothrock and other members of the State Forestry Reservation Commission, visited Mont Alto in the Summer of 1903, and according to Forest Leaves, celebrated the opening of the school in September. In the December issue of the magazine, Wirt wrote that in September, 13 young men had reported for duty, of who three had been working 6-8 months as student-assistants. These 13 men constituted the very first class of the Pennsylvania State Forest Academy. Because of the restrictions of the enacting bill, the degree of each student was limited to two years. These future foresters had to learn everything they possibly could in that time span.

When he finally got his school, Rothrock spent little time celebrating. He and his faculty went right to work, trying to minimize the current crises of vandalism, timber thievery, and most importantly fire destruction. Fire crews tended to be small and inefficient, and access to the fires via roads was virtually nonexistent. In the early 1900s, a “good” year was when only 30,000 acres burned; in a “bad” year, well over 170,000 acres could be destroyed. Rothrock knew that is was not only the trees at risk—forest fires left many buildings and lives destroyed in their path. Therefore, reforestation had to come second to fire prevention. There was no point planting thousands of seedlings when tens of thousands were burning.

Because of this growing concern, the primary duty of the students of Rothrock’s school were to be acting wardens of the forest, learning to prevent fires and help the fire crews put them out when they occurred. They were students of a school, and did for a certain amount of time every week sit in classrooms with textbooks, but the majority of their work was real manual labor, done on the campus, in the nursery, and the reserves. Rothrock was adamant about this: his first and most important question to new students was “Can you work?” Rothrock’s original idea was to produce foresters, not wardens, but with the problem at hand being the rapid burning and destruction of the forests, his school initially trained wardens. However, as the school grew, Rothrock and his staff molded the curriculum to suit their desired product, foresters, and turn those that were not quite up to par for forester status into wardens. Wirt in particular was the curriculum creator. He wanted the students to acquire forestry skills and then to learn the reasons behind the use of those skills. Students needed to understand the purposes for forest management and the best methods to achieve those purposes. Wirt struggled to find the right balance of theoretical and practical knowledge to teach his students, and as the story goes, he assigned his student-assistants to weed-pulling in the nursery while he rode up into the park with several textbooks and course lists from various schools forestry schools, including some European ones. Wirt wrote that after some time and “with much prayer and meditation,” he rode back from the park with a course of study in hand.

Early Mont Alto Class
Penn State Archives/Intercom
One of the first classes of the school-- all with their own horses, pistols, and uniforms. Wiestling Hall is in the background.

The first cadre of students was an odd menagerie of men—some had high levels of education from other universities, and some had not even completed grade school. Some were very young, not seventeen, while others were older than Wirt himself (23) and had wives and children living on the campus with them. To top it all off, they all had varying levels of experience in forestry, from enough to work a nursery on their own to none at all. All of this disconcerted Wirt, naturally; he had a lot more work on his hands than he intended. But the heterogeneity of the group was slowly smoothed out; along with the disputes over uniforms (Dock was opposed to blue, but Wirt won out in the end). Each student had to have his own horse with which to travel through the reserves, and each had to wear their uniform and their commissioned pistol while on duty. They were indeed acting wardens of the forests, and had the authority to enforce the safety of the forests. The actual classroom aspect of the school did not really start until the third week of December, because students worked outside nearly every single day, and only on bad-weather days did they stay inside to learn from text books.

The school had many initial speed bumps, but the students and faculty overcame them for the greater cause: forest preservation. As the years progressed, the difficulties that arose were smoothed out, and the school itself evolved. The curriculum and the surrounding forests and reserves were further improved, the student body and faculty grew, and every graduate was better than the last. The primary building on the campus, Wiestling Hall, has since served as the dining hall, classroom and dormitory. It is rumored to be haunted by the former ironmaster, Col. Wiestling. It is the oldest building in the Penn State system outside of University Park, and currently houses administrative offices. On Arbor Day 1905, Wirt sent students searching for native tree species not found on campus. They returned more than 400 specimens and 30 species to the campus, and so began the extensive arboretum at Mont Alto. This arboretum continues to provide a training ground for students, as well as a research site for the development of new hybrids. In 1909, the forestry students began work on their new dormitory, Conklin Hall, which was finished in 1911. The building is now home to the Student Center, Student Affairs offices and the archives.

Twenty years later, the profession of forestry had developed to the point where baccalaureate studies were the norm in many universities, and Rothrock’s ‘school’ for foresters was renamed an academy for its newfound prestige and recognized professional standing. Rothrock’s academy, however, did not have a baccalaureate curriculum. The Pennsylvania State College had offered a baccalaureate curriculum in forestry since 1907, and having then decided that Rothrock’s school did have a future, the Pennsylvania State College merged with the Mont Alto academy to form the Penn State Mont Alto campus.

State officials hanging in effigy
Penn State Mont Alto
Student protesters in 1929 hanged Secretary of Forests and Waters Dorworth and his deputy secretary Illick in effigy.

The students were adamantly opposed to the merger. They knew the history and the struggles of their schools founders, and did not want to be absorbed by the big-name university that originally denied their beloved school, especially now that the school had risen to prominence on its own. Students not only protested the merger by hanging two Penn State officials in effigy, but many more actually transferred in 1929 to North Carolina State University to complete their education. Mont Alto had graduated 243 students by the time of the merger, but from that point on, the campus was used as the first year of training for Penn State forestry students—the remaining three years of their degree were finished at University Park.  By 1963, Penn State Mont Alto was offering the first one or two years of most Penn State majors.

In 1968, the campus had to grow again. A dining hall was built, followed by three dormitories. The next decade brought the library and the Science and Technology building. In the 1990s, the campus rounded out its physical plant with a Multipurpose Activities Center and a bookstore. Today, Mont Alto offers four baccalaureate degrees and eight associate degrees, and serves nearly 1,300 students annually. The campus also serves approximately 2,500 annually through its Continuing Education unit, with courses on campus, at the Chambersburg Mall and at other sites.

Forestry in our nation was in its infancy a century ago, but within that century, the forests have regenerated and matured remarkably due to the hard work of the Pennsylvania State Forest School’s graduates. In 2002, Pennsylvania’s forests were estimated to contain nearly 86 million board feet of lumber. Employing over a hundred thousand workers, the state created a $15 billion forest products industry, and the state now owns 17 million acres of restored forests that protect the watersheds and provide a habitat for diverse flora and fauna—offering recreational opportunities that are vital for the tourist industry. The rich history of forestry and conservation is still very much a part of Penn State Mont Alto, and it still educates foresters as well as students in many other academic programs. The campus celebrated its heritage and history for the 100th anniversary of the Pennsylvania State Forest Academy in 2003.


  • Cieri, Holly. “Founded to Save the Trees.” The Histories of Penn State. Mont Alto, PA: Penn State Intercom, 2002. <>.
  • Clepper, Henry E., Editor. Forestry Education in Pennsylvania. University Park, PA: The Penn State-Mont Alto Alumni Association, 1957. 
  • Gerhold, Henry D. A Century of Forest Resources Education at Penn State: Serving our Forests, Waters, Wildlife, and Wood Industries. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007.
  • The Seedling. Mont Alto, PA: Penn State Forest School, 1935.
  • Thomas, Elizabeth H. A History of the Pennsylvania State Forest School, 1903-1929. Mont Alto, PA: Pennsylvania State Forest Academy/School Foundation Society, 1985.