Trees have always been planted
as symbolic gestures. And not only is Greater Cleveland a good example—it’s
one of the very first regions to coordinate a living memorial to soldiers
who gave their lives in the First World War.
The memorial is “Liberty Row,” a nine-mile string of white
oaks running from Gordon Park along Martin Luther King Boulevard (originally
“Lower Boulevard but for years named “Liberty Boulevard”)
up North Park Boulevard along the Doan Brook watershed and nearly to Warrensville
Center Road along numerous Shaker Heights streets. Altogether, about 850
trees were planted, each with a round, engraved bronze plaque embedded
in a cement base. Even today—more than 85 years after their installation—a
great many of the trees and tablets survive. Here is some background:
of Liberty Oaks on North Park Blvd. near Woodmere Drive.
A Head Start
Following the Armistice (November 11, 1918), American Legion posts, garden
clubs, school children, communities and families around the country planted
trees, usually as part of dignified ceremonies. Indeed, that very month,
American Forests Association Board Chairman Charles Lathrop Pack called
for “a new form of monument—a memorial that lives.”
Greater Clevelanders lost little time; they mobilized to such a forceful
extent that by Memorial Day, in 1919, the planting of a long chain of
“Liberty Oaks” was already underway.
In fact, the plan for Cleveland actually began before the War ended.
Cleveland Councilman Jerry R. Zmunt, in a July 7, 1918 article in The
Cleveland Plain Dealer, noted: “This is a splendid way of honoring
our boys. It is particularly fitting that one of our finest boulevards
in the city be chosen. The naming of trees after our dead heroes is the
best tribute we can pay them, and their names will thus be perpetuated
in a living thing.” The American Forest Association applauded the
idea and urged other communities to follow suit.
Making It Happen
Under the leadership of Councilman Zmunt, Cleveland Director of Parks
and Public Property Floyd E. Waite, and City Forester Harry C. Hyatt,
a path was selected. On July 15, 1918, Ordinance 47590 was passed—“relative
to changing North Park Boulevard, running through Ambler Park, Rockefeller
Park and Shaker Heights Park from Cedar to Center Road to ‘Liberty
Row.’” The reference to North Park Boulevard within Cleveland
City borders is confusing (even though the Shaker Lakes themselves are
owned by the city of Cleveland) and it is unclear over what time span
the planting was accomplished. Still, the obvious intent was for Liberty
Row to begin at Gordon Park by Lake Erie; move down what had been Lower
Boulevard through Gordon, Rockefeller, and Wade Parks; wind up Ambler
Drive into Cleveland Heights; and then continue along North Park Boulevard
through Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights. This path would take advantage
of Cleveland’s East Side chain of parkland. Additional memorials
would be planted and installed later in other areas, including oaks around
Sterling Playground at East 31st and St. Clair and sycamores in front
of the Tom Johnson monument on Public Square.
In an August, 1918, issue of American Forestry, Editor Percival Sheldon
Ridsdale praised the concept of “trees for the dead,” stating
that the fallen soldiers “are to have living monuments. Their memory
will literally be kept green.” He further claimed that these “Victory
Oaks” would doubtlessly be preferable to “marble columns.”
And he noted that “there will be an oak tree planted there for each
Clevelander who makes the supreme sacrifice. It will bear a bronze tablet
inscribed with his name and military record. The planting of the trees
will be made a civic ceremony in which the relatives of each hero will
participate . . . The trees will be, in their very greenness and robust
strength, reminders of the youth who gave their vigor to win the war.”
Planting and casting began shortly thereafter, and by May of 1919 a dedication
ceremony was held. Concurrent with the event, a poem by W.R. Rose was
printed in The Cleveland Plain Dealer. It concluded: The little trees
that line the way / Sad symbols of a nation’s pride / Are etched
against the wintry gray / Oh let them live for those who died!
A Living Memorial
In 2007, a good percentage of North Park’s Liberty Oaks and plaques
remain intact. Those along Martin Luther Drive have fared less well—often
succumbing to theft and sudden encounters with out-of-control automobiles.
Nevertheless, the spirit of the Oaks and the majesty they bring to our
cities is uncompromised. For many years American Legion Glenville Post
130 decorated the plaques. On patriotic holidays, flags are still placed
by at least some of the remaining markers.
I was in the fourth grade, which would have been in 1921, I remember
a very unusual day in our lives. This was soon after World War I
and Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the great French hero, was in Cleveland
being honored by the community. On this particular November day
there was a caravan with Foch, Ambassador Myron T. Herrick and other
notables traveling up North Park Boulevard. All the kids were dismissed
from school to witness the processional. We lined the roadway with
wonderment in our eyes, seeing the famous general and the whole
entourage passing slowly past.
We then planted trees, which today still stand there all
along North Park. If you look, you will see a little round bronze
plate embedded in a cement stone with the name of a soldier who
gave his life in the war.
Edward Spears ,
a retired social worker who has always lived in Cleveland Heights,
recalls a very special day in his young life.
All the way running up from Harcourt, every
tree is dedicated to a fallen soldier. If you ever drive by, just
stop and read the inscription. They were small saplings when we
planted them; now they’re getting rather stately.”
plaques are approximately 4.25 inches in diameter and .5 inches thick.
Each contains the name of a fallen soldier and, in many cases, the
day he died. On some plaques, a sprig of olive branches is still visible
at the top and bottom. The markers were designed and cast by Fischer
and Sons of Cleveland OH and cost $10 apiece at the time.