On Nov. 29, 1918, the city of Fort Wayne dedicated a park – Memorial Park – to the 125 local soldiers who lost their lives fighting in World War I, which had only ended days before on Nov. 11, 1918.
Within the past century, however, the park had seen a downturn. Most of the original 125 trees in Memorial Grove had died, and the park faced problems with crime before generally being underutilized, Fort Wayne Parks & Recreation Department Deputy Director Garry Morr said.
However, after Indiana Tech proposed constructing a track and field facility at the park – a proposal that was ultimately withdrawn after members of the public expressed concerns – the park has seen the beginnings of a revival.
“The hearing was very well attended – standing room only,” Morr said. “We heard lots of issues that were discussed, concerns about the park.”
What started out as voices of concern quickly became answered calls to action.
After that meeting the parks department decided to take the discussion a step further by starting a task force for Memorial Park consisting of members of the park board, veteran organizations and other members of the community.
The committee has already done an Americans with Disabilities Act assessment of the park, looked at the usage of its pool and playground and examined the state of landscaping throughout the space, Morr said.
“We’re making good progress,” he said. “The spotlight is kind of back on the park in a very positive way.”
The committee plans to report back to the park board early next year with a five-year plan prioritizing the needs at Memorial Park, Morr said.
However, one of the big issues facing the park, the grove of trees, has already been taken care of.
“Actually it’s kind of cool what’s happened since [the public hearing]. I’ve had four calls from particularly veteran organizations [saying] that they want to help,” Morr said.
One of those groups was Warrior Breed Motorcycle Club, which president and Memorial Park committee member Gary Perkey described as a “club with a mission” – to help veterans.
“We came over and we participated in the public hearing and we saw how the public stepped up the way they did and supported the park, specifically the trees. Nobody wanted that to go away,” Perkey said. “There was another individual here that … said, this seems like something that really comes down your alley, and we were thinking the same thing.”
Warrior Breed asked the city if they could fund the replacement of the 71 trees that needed replaced at Memorial Grove (about 54 were surviving or had been replanted in 2002).
Once they got the green light, the club set to work raising the approximately $30,000 necessary to make that goal a reality.
“There was no doubt in my mind, I had no fears whatsoever that the public and businesses would step up and provide the money necessary to do the trees,” Perkey said.
He was right – some of Allen County’s largest industries and union groups stepped up, allowing Warrior Breed to not only buy and plant the trees but to take their efforts a step further.
“We’re not done yet: monuments have to be updated throughout the rest of the park; we’re creating a trust fund to take care of these trees for generations to come,” Perkey said. “I don’t want anybody to think that because we got to the goal of the trees, this effort is not done. There is still a lot of money to raise … I mean, there are monuments here that don’t have heads on them.”
The monument Perkey is referring to is the Olen J. Pond Memorial. The statue was dedicated on Armistice Day in 1930 after funds were raised by Mrs. O.J. Pond and WWI veterans. Unfortunately, about 60 years later vandals stole the statue’s head, and it has never been replaced.
Restoration of the limestone statue was already planned for 2018, including the return of its head, according to information provided by the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department.
That restoration, like that of any of the at least 50 monuments throughout the Fort Wayne parks, comes at a hefty price tag – in this case, $40,000.
All of the monuments on park land are cared for through the parks department’s general operating budget, parks department landscape architect Alec Johnson said.
Because many of the monuments contain bronze, they have to be cleaned and cared for in a special way to prevent corrosion, he said. The limestone, too ,needs to be cleaned properly and repaired from years of settling and everyday wear.
“It’s not as easy as just washing them, it requires special attention,” Johnson said. “They’re works of art and you have to make sure you treat them that way.”
In 2014, Conservation of Sculpture and Object Studio of Forest Park, Ill., was hired to restore the Major General Anthony Wayne Monument at Friemann Square, which was originally dedicated in 1918.
“They have a patented method for restoring bronze sculptures,” Johnson said, adding the company had been on contract with the Chicago parks system.
During that time, the city also did a needs assessment of other statues in its system and created a list of those in most need of repair.
“We have dedicated money each year to put toward monument repair,” he said.
Still, sometimes other needs take precedent.
“The reason a lot of them are in this condition is often things like a roof with a hole or park drive with potholes can feel more imminent, typically those rise to the top” of budget considerations, Johnson said.
Worth the costs?
Fort Wayne isn’t unique in facing the challenges of caring for aging monuments.
In light of the 100th anniversary of the United States’ involvement in World War I, the United States World War I Centennial Commission has started a grant program, called 100 Cities, 100 Memorials, to give 100 cities up to $2,000 each in matching grants to restore their WWI monuments.
Fort Wayne actually applied for one of these matching grants for Memorial Park, Morr said. The park was not among the first 50 selected for a grant but has been moved for consideration in the second round.
Despite the hefty price tags to care for aging monuments and groves of trees, those involved believe it is worth it to honor those who created them and are remembered in these hallowed spaces.
“At the time that all of these statues were commissioned there was money that was raised, sometimes by members of the community, to recognize certain people or events,” Johnson said. “It’s very important to recognize that previous work and recognize the importance of what each one stands for.”
The connection between past and present isn’t lost on Perkey. As crews from Shade Trees Unlimited placed the new trees into the ground Oct. 28, Perkey explained how, thanks to blueprints from 1917, each tree was going back into the exact same place as its predecessor. And on Nov. 11, the city and Warrior Breed dedicated those newly planted trees, much as the grove had been dedicated about 100 years before.
In essence, Warrior Breed and the Parks Department were – and still are – working to bring Memorial Park back to the vision put out by the group that founded it 100 years ago.
“To think back … almost exactly 100 years ago, this park was given to the city, and there was, I assume, a committee formed at that time [to plan the park],” Perkey said. “And here we are, 100 years later, a committee doing the same thing again, having the same conversations and replanting the trees and still honoring them today … it’s a complete and 100 percent honor [to be a part of].”