Who needs telephone booths? Certainly not these Pi Beta Phi sorority sisters at the University of Maine in Orono, who decided to put a markedly Maine twist on the phone booth-cramming craze back in November 1961. Having realized that such a competition might draw attention to their sisterhood — a South African record of twenty-five people in a single phone booth had sparked a whole new sort of cramming at universities in the U.S. just a few years earlier — these nimble young ladies chose a stately old hollow tree as the site for a challenge with the brothers of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity.
After stacking their sneakers and slippers at left, the women climbed on each other's shoulders and backs to fill the inside of the great tree, which appears to be an eastern cottonwood that had been hollow for many years and yet retained its strength (the tree at right, with its obvious burn marks, may not be so fortunate). Eight young ladies had made their way into the tree by the time an unknown photographer snapped this striking photograph, and already the women appear poised to spill out of the bottom, forcing the two women at lower center to grimace as they brace themselves while supporting the human pyramid. Thirteen Pi Phi sisters would eventually squeeze into the tree before gravity took its toll, an impressive feat topped only by the fifteen Lambda Chi brothers who succeeded them.
But for many UMO students this unusual tree, tucked in a wood near Hancock Hall, was special for more than its ability to contain coeds. Along with two of Old Ironside's cannons mounted nearby, it had become a popular meeting spot for young men and women wishing to escape the oversight of their dorm leaders. "It was just such a romantic place," recalls Nancy Dysart, herself a sorority sister during the 1960s. "The way you could stand completely inside that tree — there was no other place like it." Many fraternity brothers even used the spot to express their commitment to their girls by "pinning" their fraternity pins on them here.
Happily, this remarkable photograph is not the only remembrance of this storied arbor. Instead of sending the great arbor to the chipper when it was finally cut down in the late 1980s, university officials memorialized some of the joyful unions made here by packaging pieces of the tree and providing them to alumni. Poke around in some of the closets and on the mantels of a few Maine homes today and you'll find a piece of wood and bark that, like this photograph, tells a touching story.