A Little Piece of Aggieland: The Century Tree Project

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By Samantha Corpus

The Century Tree is older than any building on the Texas A&M University campus. It was planted in 1891 near the Old Main building, which stood where the Academic Building now stands. Now, anyone can own a piece of Texas A&M history though the Century Tree Project, supporting Texas A&M scholarships.

In the mid-1880s, many of the native trees had been cut down for firewood to heat the buildings in the winter. The Texas A&M Horticulture Department, under the direction of E. J. Kyle, planted more than 70 species of test trees in three small plots on campus. They cared for and monitored them for 15 years to see which ones would do best in College Station’s climate and soil.

After 15 years, the horticulture department concluded that the live oak species was the species of choice because of the prolific growth of the live oak test tree. All of the other test trees were removed, except for the live oak tree now known as the Century Tree.

Andy Duffie, a Texas A&M graduate of 1978 originally from Vernon, started picking acorns from the Century Tree when he and his wife were roaming the campus during his 30th class reunion in September 2008.

“We were wandering around the campus and came to Academic Plaza and I noticed the Century Tree was laden with acorns,” says Duffie. “On a whim, I picked a pocket full of acorns from the tree and I took them home. I planted them thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I could get some of these to grow?’ To my disappointment, not a single acorn sprouted.”

Duffie decided to research not only how to grow a live oak tree from its acorns, but also spent time at Cushing Library studying early Texas A&M campus history, including the horticulture department’s planting of test trees in the 1880s and early 1890s. He learned that live oak tree acorns mature in October. So, in 2009 while visiting his daughter at Texas A&M, Duffie picked 50 fallen acorns. This time 10 sprouted.

“I knew I could make a go of this,” says Duffie. “So I decided to fund, if possible, a President’s Endowed Scholarship, which is a $100,000 endowment.”

In October of 2010, Duffie returned to the campus armed with an ice chest and filled it with more than 3,000 acorns from the ground. From those 3,000 acorns, 530 seedlings sprouted.

After raising them for two years in north Central Texas, he sold the saplings through the Aggie Century Tree Project Facebook page. Each one sold for $250, or $200 if more than one was purchased. Duffie raised $106,000, which he used to fund the Century Tr,ee President’s Endowed Scholarship.

When all the trees were sold in 2012, Duffie concluded his two-year project. Over the next several months, more than 250 people who had heard about the Century Tree saplings were turned down.

Two years later, in 2014, Duffie sold the business operations he owned and managed in north Central Texas and moved to College Station, which made it more convenient for him to begin his project again. He decided this time he would raise money in amounts of $25,000 to fund smaller scholarships, and he would grow the trees for one year instead of two, making them easier to ship through UPS.

Duffie’s second crop was ready to sell by the fall of 2015. He used some of the money raised from the new crop to fund an Aggie Ring Scholarship that was awarded this year to a young man from Houston, who will receive his ring in September. The third scholarship Duffie plans to fund is the Sul Ross Scholarship for members of the Corps of Cadets.

“It’s a very Aggie thing to do,” says Duffie. “These acorns that I collect are squirrel food basically, but I am putting them to a very constructive use and so far I have funded about $150,000 in scholarships.”

Today, there are about 1,800 Century Tree seedlings growing in people’s yards in 14 states including Washington, Oregon, California, and Virginia. The trees are often given as gifts for any occasion: birthdays, graduations, weddings, and funerals.

In April, Duffie was invited to Aggie Ring Remembrance Ceremony to meet the families of the fallen Texas A&M students of the past year. He offered a tree as a gift of remembrance to each family of the fallen. Duffie hopes this will become an annual gesture of support to grieving Aggie families.

“These little trees are very special to Aggies,” says Duffie. “I call them little pieces of Aggieland.”

Trees are for sale and growing tips are provided for buyers of Century Tree seedlings on his website at www.aggiecenturytreeproject.com and on his Facebook page, Aggie Century Tree Project.