At that time, Woodhaven was still a neighborhood in development. The elevated train had just been built on Jamaica Avenue, silent movies and wooden schoolhouses were the norm, and Woodhaven “Avenue” was a single-lane dirt road.
Though the United States joined the war in April of 1917, it isn’t until later in the year that we see our local boys go off to war with rousing support from an almost enthusiastic public.
But by May of the following year the war began to take its toll on locals. At first there were a few isolated casualties, but as the weeks wore on, readers of the Leader-Observer would nervously look at each week’s headlines to see the latest news and grim announcements that more local boys had been killed.
In November 1918, peace was declared but slow lines of communications kept local families on edge for a few more weeks and months as the final list of casualties was produced. Eventually, it was determined that 70 young men lost their lives in what would become known as “The Great War.”
By early 1919, thoughts turned to creating a memorial to the dead and organizers decided to do something unique. Trees were planted in the name of each fallen soldier in Forest Park across from the golf clubhouse and a large brass plaque and granite monument were purchased by the residents of Woodhaven.
Each year, families of the deceased would decorate the trees with patriotic bows and ribbons and the annual Memorial Day Parade would wind its way through Woodhaven and end with a ceremony by American Legion Post 118 at the Memorial Trees and Monument in Forest Park.
You may be wondering why you never heard of this tradition and what happened to it. You see, when they expanded Woodhaven Boulevard, they needed to tear down dozens of houses and buildings in order to go from a sleepy little road to a large ten-lane thoroughfare.
A former farmhouse belonging to the Wyckoff family that served as the home of American Legion Post 118 was one of those casualties of progress. A new headquarters was built in 1941 at 91st Street and 89th Avenue and the World War 1 monument of Forest Park was moved to its front yard, where it sits to this very day.
The parade was re-routed away from Forest Park, and over time the tradition of decorating the trees, and their original purpose, faded from Woodhaven’s memory.
But the tradition was revived last year in time for Memorial Day and continued again this year as the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society and volunteers from the community were joined by Post 118’s auxiliary and students from St. Thomas the Apostle’s Woodhaven History Club to decorate the trees.
This year, a white background was draped around more than 50 trees along Forest Park Drive, and the young men and women from the Franklin K. Lane Campus’ ROTC, led by Air Force Master Sgt. Eddie Carr, completed the decorations by tying red, white and blue bows to the trees.
As the line of decorated trees began to take shape, cars passing by showed their appreciation by honking their horns and waving at the young men and women from the community who were doing such a great job bringing back a piece of Woodhaven’s past.
Over the next few weeks, you may find yourself walking or driving through Forest Park past the World War 1 Memorial Trees of Woodhaven. Or maybe you’ll be passing by American Legion Post 118 and spot the large granite monument with the names of the fallen on it.
Take a moment to remember that each name on that monument corresponds to a decorated tree in our Forest Park, each one representing a young life from Woodhaven that ended far too soon. Take a moment to remember them and honor their sacrifice. It’s the very least we can do.