By Ed Wendell
A hundred and three years ago, a beautiful tradition was launched in Forest Park, the creation of a living, breathing memorial to 70 young men from Woodhaven who lost their lives in World War 1.
Although our country’s time in the war was brief, we suffered many casualties and Woodhaven was hit very hard. Week after week, the front page of the Leader-Observer announced the names of the newly dead and wounded.
It was a dramatic turnaround from the early days of our involvement in the war when the newspapers and the public were quite enthusiastic, seeing our young men off with rousing cheers and festive parades.
In the days and months after the war ended, residents of Woodhaven wanted to create a unique monument to the young men whose lives were lost. The idea they finally settled upon was original indeed, and the press stated that it was the first of its kind in the United States.
In May of 1919, fifty-three trees were planted along the road entering Forest Park at Park Lane South and Forest Parkway, each in the name of a soldier that perished. Over time, as more names were added to the Honor Roll, the number of trees grew to approximately 70.
And every Decoration Day (as Memorial Day was originally known) families would gather in Forest Park and decorate their loved one’s tree. The annual parade would end amongst the memorial trees, right outside the golf clubhouse that sat on the hill high above Woodhaven.
Up until the late 1930s, the annual Memorial Day Parade in Woodhaven ended outside that clubhouse, which today is known as Oak Ridge, and is the headquarters of the Forest Park Administration Office.
Chairs would be set out on the lawn in front of the clubhouse and hundreds and hundreds of veterans, family members and residents would march up that hill to pay tribute to the dead.
The Woodhaven community held a number of yard sales to raise the money for a large granite monument with a plaque listing the names of the dead and it was erected atop that hill, among the trees planted for those young men.
It was a beautiful tradition that faded away due to a series of events triggered by the widening of Woodhaven Boulevard in the late 30s early 1940s.
You see, the old American Legion headquarters sat on Woodhaven Boulevard, which back then was still called an Avenue as it was a sleepy single-lane dirt road. But the rise of the automobile required more roadway and so Woodhaven Boulevard went from 1 to 10 lanes.
That meant that the old Legion building was torn down by the city and money granted to build a new headquarters, which they did, at 88th Avenue and 91st Street, behind PS 60, where it sits today.
And since they had a nice new building with a lovely front yard, they decided to move the monument from Forest Park to its current location. If you’ve ever been to a WRBA meeting or at the Senior Center, then you’ve seen this monument. It’s still there, listing the names of these young heroes.
But once the monument was moved, the parade route was switched and as families moved away or died off or just plain forgot, the tradition of decorating the trees disappeared.
But the trees are still there.
Sure enough, time has been harsh to the trees and many of them have fallen. In fact, one of the original trees came down a few weeks ago, having never recovered from being struck by a car last year. But quite a few of these trees have passed the century mark and they still stand on that hill, high above Woodhaven.
The Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society and American Legion Post 118 worked together to revive this tradition in 2015 and each year a group of volunteers gather to decorate the trees. This year, we are scheduling the decorating for Friday May 19th starting at 6 p.m. If you’d like to participate, email us at [email protected] for more information.