Sam Seawell (front) with some of his fraternity brothers who helped clean up ATO Spring.

Sam Seawell (front) with some of his fraternity brothers who helped clean up ATO Spring.

Spring Cleaning

Inspired by one of its members, a Sewanee fraternity revitalizes a significant campus historic site.


T he fortunes of ATO Spring started looking up one day in the fall of 2015 when Sam Seawell, C’17, joined his environmental education class for a field excursion led by Sewanee Herbarium Director Mary Priestley, C’72. Seawell is not just a member of ATO, he also lived—and still lives—in the fraternity house, which sits directly above the spring. So, as Priestley introduced the class to the spring site, Seawell could see his bedroom window from where he stood. What Seawell and his classmates saw around them that day did not speak well for the way the ATOs had treated the historic site in their back yard: Beer cans and broken glass littered the ground, pieces of broken furniture choked the stream that flows from the spring, and overgrown invasive plant species ran amok.

Looking around at the mess, the environment and sustainability major felt more than a little sheepish. “I was so embarrassed,” he says. “Mrs. Priestley said, ‘This is ATO Spring … But I don’t know what the ATOs do with it.’”

While the students headed downhill into Abbo’s Alley to float wine-cork sailboats down the stream, Priestley stayed behind to pick up trash—which only made Seawell feel worse. “I was just like, ‘Awww, man,’” he says. So, after class, he approached Priestley and told her that while he and his fraternity brothers had been part of the reason for the spring’s sorry state, he wanted to be part of the solution. Now, more than a year later, thanks to Seawell and his fraternity brothers, the formerly inaccessible and neglected spring is an inviting little sanctuary open to anyone with a few minutes to spare and a desire for some peace and quiet in a beautiful natural setting.

ATO Spring—previously named and sometimes still called Otey Spring—played a vital role in the history of the University of the South all the way back to the University’s founding. The presence of fresh water was a major factor in the founders’ decision to locate the University on this particular portion of the Cumberland Plateau. There were no lakes to serve as reservoirs, so Otey Spring and nearby Polk Spring (also known as Tremlett Spring) served as the major sources of potable water.

In 1861, Rainsford Fairbanks, the first child born to the young University community, was baptized in the waters of Otey Spring. Her father, George Rainsford Fairbanks, who later built Rebel’s Rest, wrote to Bishop Stephen Elliott: “We have a young daughter born on the Mountain entitled, I suppose, to be considered the first University nativity here. She has been baptized by Bp. Otey in the limpid waters of ‘Otey’s Spring’ so familiar to you and yours.” 

During the Civil War, Union and Confederate soldiers camped at different times below the springs in what is now Abbo’s Alley. There are records of the men writing home, extolling the virtues of the water. After the war, the University installed iron pipes to carry water from Otey Spring to a cistern from which it was pumped to a tank in Breslin Tower to be distributed to nearby buildings.

Even after a municipal water system was established, townspeople used the spring’s water for making ice cubes. Ice made from piped water was rusty red, but the ice made from the waters of Otey Spring was clear and rust-free. In Too Black, Too White, Ely Green wrote that around the turn of the 20th century, “The tourists were coming in … the hotels were filled with guests. … Often the guests would pay me ten cents a gallon for water from the ATO Spring. This water was supposed to be ninety percent pure, equal to Vermont water.”

More than 100 years later, the spring had become a forgotten footnote, quietly issuing its nearly constant stream of water, unnoticed even by hikers on the Abbo’s Alley trail, just a stone’s throw downhill. But that was about to change.

At first glance, Mary Priestley and Sam Seawell are an unlikely pair. She’s a 60-something short-haired naturalist with an encyclopedic knowledge of the flora of the Domain. He’s a long-haired 21-year-old fraternity man who freely admits that most of his previous experiences at ATO Spring involved cold, frothy beverages. When Seawell graduates in May, it will be 45 years after Priestley graduated from Sewanee. But that may be where the dissimilarity ends. The two share not only a love of Sewanee but a deep appreciation for its history. They also share a belief that change comes not through talk, but through action.

“Sam is an unusual young man, and I’m just really lucky that he is who he is,” Priestley says. “I’m older than his parents, but that doesn’t matter to him—he’s kind of ageless in a way. And he’s almost single-handedly pulled the fraternity into doing this.”

When Seawell returned to the Mountain after winter break in January 2016, he emailed Priestley to tell her that he was ready to work. Priestley helped Seawell and his fraternity brothers and pledges identify the invasive plant species that had overtaken the site, including a fast-growing bush honeysuckle and miles of English ivy that was strangling the native oak trees. They tore out the honeysuckle, killed the ivy, and started the long process of cleaning up. They cleared a path to provide easy access to the site from the Abbo’s Alley trail. With a donation from an ATO alumnus, they bought rakes and shovels to maintain the site. Fraternity pledges built benches to make the spring a more welcoming place. And finally, to complete the access to the site, they recruited Andrew Bachman, a local Boy Scout, to build a bridge over the stream for his Eagle Scout project.

Seawell admits that getting his fraternity brothers to support the project wasn’t easy at first. “They took some convincing,” he says. “But they saw how passionate I was about it and this year they’ve really helped out, keeping it clean and picking up trash every day.”

In talking about ATO Spring, Seawell and Priestley both invoke the ancient Celtic idea of “thin places,” locations where heaven seems a little closer to earth than it is in most of the world. They also talk about hidden sanctuaries that are almost public, but not quite, where a visitor can find tranquility very close to the bustle of everyday life. “One day I got there and the water was gurgling and there were all these warblers drinking the water out of the creek and there were two chipmunks running around,” Seawell says. “It was pure bliss in nature, and I was just like, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’ And it’s just 50 yards from pure madness.”

Seawell and Priestley agree the real challenge for the future of the spring is passing along Seawell’s passion for the project within the fraternity. The spring actually sits within the ATOs’ leasehold, so it will be up to the fraternity to keep it up. To that end, Seawell is working to establish a new officer position in the fraternity, a “Keeper of the Grounds” who would be responsible for maintaining the site and making sure that his fraternity brothers don’t litter it with bottles and cans.

“Sustaining it is really going to be the hard part,” Priestley says. She tells a story about a class that visited the site last semester and invited Seawell and her to talk about the spring. Priestley told the class that maintenance will be hard, comparing it to a diet where losing the weight is relatively easy but keeping it off is next to impossible: “And then Sam says, ‘You know my mom has a refrigerator magnet that says It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change. And that’s what we’re up to.’ And I thought, that’s exactly right. He nailed it.”

For his part, Seawell believes the future of the spring will depend on fraternity members keeping proper perspective. “I don’t think ATO is bigger than the spring,” Seawell says. “The spring is one of the foundations of the entire community and we want to share it with the community. It’s historically significant, and there’s a sacred aspect to it because the first baptism in Sewanee took place here. It’s our responsibility to uphold it, and take care of it, and be good stewards of it.” 

To find ATO Spring from University Avenue, take the Abbo’s Alley path that runs alongside the ATO House and look for a bridge over the stream to your right. After crossing the bridge, it’s a short walk to the spring.