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JARDINE: An Arboreal Delight in Hughson

HUGHSON — From Whitmore Avenue, just east of Hughson High School, it looks simply like a grove of trees.

Oaks, redwoods, pines and pepper trees. Mesquites, magnolias, sycamores and incense cedars.

There's no sign along the road telling people passing by they are looking at the Hughson Arboretum and Gardens, a parklike setting intended to become a place were people can stroll through the woods in a peaceful, soothing environment.

"It's amazing how many people go by it twice a day and don't know it's there," said Margaret Sturtevant, who owns the property and began turning it into a grove in 1994.

Because if they did, they might stop to see a tulip poplar tree born of a seed from George Washington's farm in Mount Vernon, Va. Or the Japanese cherry tree that grew from a pit from one of the trees given to the United States by Japan in 1912 that line the tidal basin near the Jefferson Memorial in Washington.

Or the George Washington Carver green ash tree that came from the Diamond Grove, Mo., birthplace of the scientist who found more than 300 uses for peanuts, among his many discoveries.

Or the elm tree that survived the April 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

Or a red maple that came from President James Madison's Montpelier estate in Virginia, or a golden raintree from "Uncle Tom's Cabin" author Harriet Beecher Stowe's family home in Florida, or a Trail of Tears redbud tree remembering the cruel and forced migration of Native Americans to reservations in Oklahoma in 1838.

Yes, it's a very special place — nine acres of trees with room for many more. Paths meander through the groves that include sections of species native to the Sierra and desert.

At 90, Sturtevant is beginning her second try at creating a place the public can enjoy. In 2002, she donated 12 acres and created a nonprofit board to oversee development of the Hughson Botanical Garden. The board hired an executive director who convinced the board to retain a firm of Seattle landscape architects to design the gardens.

The firm drew up a plan that, if built out, would have cost $20 million. Ouch!

"They had great big dreams," Sturtevant said. "They wanted the most beautiful arboretum in the world. They overstepped their bounds. Even if they did only one quarter of (the firm's design), that still would have cost $5 million."

So in 2006, she took back the property she had deeded to the nonprofit and disbanded the organization and its board.

Four years later, with a new board in place, she'll try again. The board expects to have its new nonprofit status within a month or so, said President John Carter who, with school teacher Leslie Sanderson, is one of only two current board members who also served on the first one.

Carter, who teaches economics at three valley colleges, is a Hughson native who wants to see his old home town have such a beautiful setting.

Sturtevant, who wasn't on the original board, is on this one. She also recruited Modesto resident Ed Perillo, Hughson City Councilman Matt Beekman, Hughson Planning and Development Director Thom Clark, former Stanislaus County Supervisor Pat Paul, Historical Society President Jean Henley-Hatfield and Janice Adams to serve.

Sturtevant refuses to see her vision for the arboretum as "scaled down," preferring instead to call it more "focused" than the previous effort.

Former University of California at Santa Cruz botanist Dan Harder has signed on as director of the Hughson arboretum. Philanthropists John and June Rogers will match the group's fund-raising efforts up to $50,000.

"Now, we have to go into the town and do it," Sturtevant said.

Carter is confident they can raise the funds needed to improve pathways and build a garden that demonstrates water conservation techniques that can be educational not only to school students who visit, but also to others interested in water uses.

"There is money in Hughson," Carter said. "There are people out there who will want something like this in their community and will be willing to contribute."

Earlier this year, Sturtevant's grown children placed a sign well into the property — one that includes the words "Those who plant trees plant hope."

Her hope is that another one can go up soon alongside East Whitmore Avenue — one that tells people passing by they're looking at more than a large stand of trees, and to come in and see for themselves.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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