Jeff LaBonte

In 1972, then Auburn Junior High School Science Department Chairman, James Courville, had an idea to beautify the corner of Vine and Swanson Streets. A house had been torn down adjacent to the new (at the time) Auburn Junior High School, but the property and the land next to the school had been left an eyesore

Courville proposed to install an arboretum – a botanical garden devoted to trees – to replace the “dirt pit” that had occupied the corner for years.

“I can’t think of a site in the Town that would benefit more from beautification” Courville wrote in an undated letter to the editor published in the Auburn News in the early 70s.

Ultimately, Courville got his arboretum. “He took it over by sheer will, I think” said Kevin O’Brien, one of Courville’s nephews. O’Brien’s son currently attends Swanson Road Intermediate School (SWIS) where the arboretum has lain derelict for nearly 20 years now.

Map of Courville Arboretum plan circa 1979.

Courville raised money for almost four years. Said O’Brien, “He wanted to plant one of each native Massachusetts tree on the site, at least the ones that would thrive on a hillside.”

By 1975, Courville had had laid out a plan for the arboretum, and had raised enough money to plant 25 trees, all native species. While he was able to realize his dream of establishing the arboretum, he never got to watch it mature. In early 1979, Courville tragically died in a scuba diving accident.

Papers uncovered by Courville’s family members have helped document the efforts to keep the arboretum alive. Community members, students, and fellow teachers like Paul Sturgis and Donna Leblanc solicited the community to raise money to complete the arboretum and install a plaque in Courville’s memory.

“I have solicited contributions from the teachers, Wexford Village, and the Auburn Elks in order to make this a reality” Leblanc wrote to a potential donor. “We hope to add more trees to the arboretum and dedicate it in his name with a memorial stone and plaque…” she continued.

This letter, along with newspaper clippings, diagrams, and landscaping estimates now hang in a hallway in SWIS, part of a project undertaken by media instructor Sarah Connell’s students to map and restore the arboretum.

“We were approached by some of Courville’s family members and asked if we might be able to bring the arboretum back to its original form” said Connell. “It turned into something of a mystery.”

Ultimately, the locations of some of the trees outside did not match what was shown on the original arboretum plan. Some trees are missing and presumed to have died, others are mislabeled, and a couple remained unidentified.

Connell’s students began working on the mystery. They researched old articles about the arboretum, both during Courville’s planning phase and the period after his death. They tried to track down people named in the articles to see if they could shed any light.

They tracked down a James Kane, who now lives in Virginia. “In a 1974 edition of the Auburn News…your teacher, Mr. Courville, said, ‘James Kane really has a strong interest in the arboretum…Jim drew this plan and it shows each tree we have and who donated it” the students wrote to Mr. Kane. They added “We would like to have your map. We are in desperate need of your help.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Kane did not have a copy of that map. But this past April – on Earth Day – the O’Briens contacted Connell with news that they had found a copy of the old map among some old papers.

Students have spent the last couple of weeks identifying the remaining trees in the arboretum, creating presentations about the trees, and making a plan to again beautify the corner of Swanson and Vine.

Last Friday, groups of students, parents, staff and media spent a beautiful afternoon outside looking at the trees. Kevin O’Brien was there with a photo album started by his uncle (Courville) and later updated by family. James Doyle, a biology lab supervisor at the College of the Holy Cross and parent of another SWIS student, was there to assist in identifying some of the trees. Principal Susan Lopez and Media Instructor Sarah Connell went
from group to group helping the students.

The students enlisted the help of their iPads and an app called LeafSnap to help the identify the trees. One student walked through the ID process: “The outside of the branch is green” he said. ”The inside is kind of blood red. This is definitely the cherry tree.”

Beneath the tree sits the plaque dedicating the arboretum to James Courville, placed in about 1979. Unfortunately, the arboretum was slowly forgotten from then on, though the SWIS students and staff look to change that now.

One student said “We want to rake it and pick up any trash. Maybe help some of the trees and maybe even plant more trees.”

Already the hill is cleaned up, and the trees provide a comfortable cover of shade. Standing at the bottom of the hill on the edge of Vine St., looking up toward the Auburn Junior High School turned Swanson Road Intermediate School, it is not hard to envision this piece of land as the sanctuary Courville had in mind.