For this season of Carolina Football, my route has changed. For 26 years, I strolled down Pritchard Avenue, cut across Rosemary, Franklin, Columbia and Cameron Streets then coursed my way past Memorial Hall, through Polk Place, skirted past Wilson Library and the Bell Tower then made the climb up the hill to Kenan Stadium.
Well, all that has changed. I’m now in a cottage on Park Place and my walk to work has shortened but grown exponentially in historical value. I’ve got several routes, but this Saturday, I’m making my way through the “Arb.”
Our campus garden is a living tribute to UNC botanist Dr. William C. Coker. Created in 1903, the university appropriated $10 and a gardener; Swain’s Pasture—a low-lying boggy patch of ground that for decades was grazing ground for faculty livestock—became our beloved “Arb” or “Arboretum.” Today, under the care of the NC Botanical Garden, our 5-acre wonder includes approximately 580 species of trees and shrubs. As one approaches its entrance near Spencer Dorm, there’s a sign that reads, “The Coker Arboretum is a campus sanctuary for contemplation, plant study and quiet enjoyment.”
Well, back in 1934, it was none of the above. Our “sanctuary” was a stage—one worthy of Cecil B. DeMille both in scope and protagonist.
Enter stage right, Kemp Battle Nye. Born in eastern NC but raised in Grassy Creek, Ashe County, Nye was a latter-day Hinton James. Reportedly, he walked the 147 miles from Grassy Creek to CH in seven days. Walking mostly at night to beat the heat and raiding roadside gardens, he arrived with $50 sown into the lining of his pants. Nye could only afford one year here at Carolina and soon, thereafter, lied about his age and joined the Marines.
Years later, he returned to Chapel Hill and opened Kemp’s Record and High Fidelity Shop at 205-207 East Franklin. There, he called himself the “Franklin Street Frenchman” and he had more gimmicks than Carter has pills. With loud speakers blaring out his music, he welcomed back students with “Nye’s Favorite Color is Green: Bring Your Money.” He sold records by the pound or by the inch. He reduced prices on the hour. He discounted records during rainstorms. There were all-night sales.
Nye was the consummate showman and never was that better illustrated than back during his one year at Carolina. Seems he once bet a fellow student he could cross a much more flora- and fauna-choked Coker Arboretum in its entirety without a foot touching the ground. His inspiration was Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes which had just been made into a series of motion pictures starring Johnny Weismuller. Smitten by the Tarzan persona, Nye made the bet and the great Arboretum Tree Swing took place in 1934.
On the appointed day, with the Arboretum packed with spectators, monitors took their stations along the nearly two city-block route. Then, right on schedule, Nye emerged complete with loincloth, flexed his muscles and filled the air with a modified Tarzan yell. He, then, scampered up a tree in the southwest corner of the Arboretum and zigzagged his way from limb to limb, tree to tree, as dumfounded spectators and squirrels looked on.
Yep, he made it all the way across and won a week’s worth of free lunches—a bottle of chocolate milk and a sandwich each day. Later, he even gave tours of the Arboretum and, of course, detailed his route—probably for a modest fee.
New Head Coach Larry Fedora promises a “don’t leave your seat” kind of season. Hey, shades of Kemp Battle Nye and the great Arboretum Tree Swing.
Enjoy your walk and the spectacles of campus and, course, UNC football.