By Lynn Ferrari and Greg Secord
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Summer 2015
Hartford’s World War I memorial was lost in plain sight for 45 years. In fall 2013, while searching for storage space for the Coltsville Vintage Base Ball League, Karen O’Maxfield stumbled upon more than 180 plaques honoring the WWI veterans in the basement of an outbuilding in the city’s Colt Park. As longtime Hartford residents active in working to build a collaboration of Hartford history organizations, we were excited when we learned of her discovery. After researching the origin of the plaques in the archives of The Hartford Courant, the Connecticut State Library, and the Hartford History Center at the Hartford Public Library, we were able to uncover the amazing history of the lost “Trees of Honor” memorial.
On January 12, 1920, Hartford alderman Frank Daniels wrote a Hartford Court of Common Council resolution to plant trees as a permanent memorial to Hartford residents who had made the ultimate sacrifice in World War I. The resolution passed, and Mayor Newton Brainard appointed a committee to work with the city parks department to find a location for the memorial.
The following month Superintendent of Parks George Parker submitted to the parks commission a tentative plan calling for a new walk in Bushnell Park to be lined on both sides by trees; Parker also submitted an alternative plan for Colt Park, which was ultimately chosen. Later that spring, 213 American elm trees were planted around the perimeter of the park to memorialize the 189 men known to have died and 24 additional trees for those still not confirmed. American Elms were chosen because of their stately forms and beautiful gracefully spreading branches. A wooden plaque with a soldier’s name was affixed to each tree. Ultimately, 209 soldiers were honored.
A dedication ceremony for the Trees of Honor memorial was held in June, beginning in the park’s dancing pavilion and continuing as visitors toured the memorial and a wreath was laid at each tree by children from 22 Hartford public and parochial schools. Boy Scouts from a local troop sounded Taps. Speakers included Mayor Brainard, former Mayor Frank Hagarty, Bishop John G. Murray, Rev. Herbert White, and Rabbi Abraham Anspachor.
On Armistice Day (now Veterans Day) in November, the city organized a Parade of War Veterans that included a second dedication of the memorial. The parade was followed by a victory banquet and dance at the Trinity Church parish house.
Just five years later, however, the wooden plaques were beginning to show the effects of weather. Members of the Rau-Locke American Legion Post #8 (still in existence today) offered to replace them with cast-iron plaques mounted on 30-inch-tall iron standards at a cost of between $2,000 and $3,000. On May 29, 1926 (Decoration Day celebrated on May 30 to remember Civil War dead transitioned to Memorial Day honoring the dead from all wars in the post WWI-era), the first 80 replacement metal plaques were placed by members of the Rau-Locke American Legion post. Past post commander Charles Yerrington self-published A Memorial to the Two Hundred & Nine Men of Hartford Who Died in Service during the World War, 1917-1919 in 1927 (now in the collection of the state archives) in which he recorded the veterans’ names and other military information.
By Armistice Day, November 7, 1926, metal plaques had been placed on 209 of the memorial trees and were formally presented by the post. A parade of military, civil, and fraternal organizations preceded a ceremony during which a large choir and bands performed in the park pavilion.
The memorial’s trees did not fare well during the next 20 years. In September 1928 one of the trees was knocked down and another badly damaged by an automobile. In 1948 the city identified 100 trees in Colt and Bushnell parks that needed to be destroyed due to Dutch elm disease. Small saplings were planted to replace those that did not survive.
The last recorded rededication of the Trees of Honor Memorial was held on November 11, 1963. Until the mid-1960s, the honoring of each veteran plaque with a flag and wreath had been an annual event organized on Veteran’s Day by the city’s Veteran’s Day Committee. Sometime during the late 1960s the remaining memorial trees were cut down and the plaques placed haphazardly in the basement of the park outbuilding. No public record has been found of the decision to eliminate the memorial, but the timing might suggest that it occurred at a time when—due to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War—the military was not popular. The park’s use was changing, too, to more active and athletic purposes.
After the plaques were rediscovered in fall 2013, a plan to create a new memorial took shape under the leadership of the City of Hartford and Hartford History Today, a collaboration of Hartford history organizations. The 180 plaques that were found were inventoried and stored in a more appropriate fashion. They are being restored with financial support from Associated Builders and Contractors of Connecticut. But the cost of replacing the 29 missing or damaged plaques is prohibitive, so alternative plans are being considered.
Rather than replicate the memorial in Colt Park, the city has proposed the creation of a veterans’ memorial park on city-owned land at the intersection of Charter Oak Avenue and Wyllys Street near the Church of the Good Shepherd. Associated Builders and Contractors has arranged for a landscape architect to create a concept drawing for the new site. The city is creating a Veterans’ Affairs Commission that would be responsible for the sustainability of veterans’ memorials within the city and organizing public events to insure that the Hartford residents who made the ultimate sacrifice will never again be forgotten.
For more information or to offer support for this project contact Lynn Ferrari at lynn.Ferrar@gmail.com or Greg Secord at firstname.lastname@example.org. A Go Fund Me campaign enables easy online donations at gofundme.com/7zzogk. A “Hartford Heroes” page on Facebook provides updates on the project. Veterans’ family members are encouraged to make themselves known so they can be part of a future rededication.
Lynn Ferrari is co-founder of Hartford History Today and president of the Sheldon/Charter Oak neighborhood NRZ. She serves on the City of Hartford’s Historic Preservation Commission.
Greg Secord is a co-founder of the Hartford Preservation Alliance and serves on Hartford’s Historic Preservation Commission.
Read all of our stories about World War I on our TOPICS page
“Connecticut’s World War I Memorials,” Spring 2017
“Civil War: Memorials to a Nation Preserved,” Spring 2011
“Trees as Memorials and Witnesses to History,” Spring 2021