“It was just after World War I ended, and they were talking about how there had been a proposal to build a WWI memorial in Woodhaven, where they would plant a tree for every soldier from Woodhaven killed,” Wendell explained.
After reading the story, Wendell began to wonder what happened to that proposal and if it ever came to fruition. So began a years-long sleuthing adventure that only recently came together, revealing the site of a WWI memorial in Woodhaven that has long been forgotten.
Since discovering that first article, Wendell searched and finally found a slew of follow-up articles in the Leader/Observer outlining a plan for the planting of over 50 trees in honor of each Woodhaven resident lost and the creation of a “memorial tablet” listing each name.
“Woodhaven has the distinction of being the first, probably the only community, in the country to adopt this original plan of planting trees in memory of its dead soldiers,” one archived story reads.
As Wendell continued to read the stories about the planned memorial, it became obvious that not only were the trees planted, but they were incorporated into the yearly Woodhaven Memorial Day Parade.
“So then I’m scratching my head, like, where can this be?” Wendell said.
He found an article stating that the trees were planted across from the golf clubhouse in Forest Park, which is now known as Oak Ridge.
Wendell could not find the trees just by walking around the park, but his wife reminded him that New York City has a website with archived aerial photos of the city from 1924 and 1951.
Looking at those photos, Wendell discovered what he was looking for.
“In looking up where Oak Ridge is, I saw right across the street from it — along the road that runs right in front of it and through Forest Park — there are a bunch of young trees,” Wendell said.
In his article search, Wendell had discovered that the trees planted had been oak trees. A call over the the Department of Parks and Recreation confirmed that those trees he saw in the photo, lining Forest Park Drive, were in fact oak trees.
Now the only question that remained was the “memorial tablet” that was described in the stories. The Leader/Observer wrote at the time that the tablet was located at “memorial knoll” in Forest Park, across from the golf clubhouse.
The old aerial photos show that in front of what is now Oak Ridge, there used to be a triangular plot of grass. When Woodhaven Boulevard was widened, however, the little plot disappears.
The photos all began to make sense, and Wendell realized that the memorial that now sits in front of the American Legion is in fact the same memorial tablet that used to sit in Forest Park for 22 years, before being moved to its current location in 1942.
“The mystery is pretty much solved, and we now know that the road through Forest Park was a war memorial, and the women of the American Legion used to decorate the trees every year,” Wendell said.
The local historian presented his findings to the American Legion at their meeting on Monday and was received with excitement.
“This would be a great project for us,” one woman said of the proposal to continue the tradition of decorating the trees for Memorial Day.
Allan Smith, a member of the Woodhaven Historical Society and a board member of the Queens Historical Society, said that without Wendell, Woodhaven and the city may never have rediscovered the WWI memorial.
“They owe him a lot of credit for that,” Smith said. “On their own, I’m not so sure they would have made this a project. With Ed’s interest in history, he’s tying this all together for them.”
Now that Wendell has discovered the tree memorial in Forest Park, he hopes he can galvanize others to help restore the “living, breathing war memorial” to its former glory.
“These trees were planted in 1919, so with the 100th anniversary coming up, I think the city should put some effort into sprucing its World War I memorials and this one in particular,” Wendell said.
“All this really needs here is a road pave, new sidewalks, maybe there are some trees that can be replanted and maybe rename it Forest Park Memorial Drive or something like that,” he said. “Just remind people that this used to be part of our history. Families of dead soldiers used to look on these trees as a living memorial of their loved ones.”
Wendell said he has already spoken to a number of elected officials about the memorial, including Councilman Eric Ulrich and Assemblyman Mike Miller. Miller has already stated interest in donating money for replanting trees.