TRAVERSE CITY — Trees signify life and granite strength and longevity.
Grand Traverse County's Confederation of Womens Clubs used both in 1923 and 1924 to create three memorials for the area's sons and daughters who died in wars.
The first was a "living" memorial highway along M-11, now Veterans Drive, in then-rural Garfield Township south of Traverse City. Sixteen Grand Traverse County women clubs led the effort to plant 42 sugar maple trees, one for each of the 42 local soldiers who died in 1917-1918 during World War I and the Spanish-American War in 1898.
The "Memorial Avenue" segment stretched from Garfield Township Hall north to the city limits. It was dedicated on Arbor Day, May 4, 1923, with the help of other civic organizations, the Bowen-Holliday American Legion Post 35 and state highway department.
The following year, the clubs raised $817 in donations, about $10,760 in today's dollars, to pay for two 51„2-foot granite memorials. By then, one more name had been added to the list of war dead. Bronze plaques on one monument list 34 World War I soldier names, while the Spanish-American War memorial includes nine, for a total of 43 war dead.
The third memorial was a granite boulder with a plaque installed at the top of Rennie Hill at the entrance of Memorial Highway.
The monuments still stand today on the north side of the Grand Traverse County Courthouse, and the boulder is located along Veterans Drive between the road and VFW Post 2780 parking lot.
Most of the maples are gone, felled by age, storms, disease, road changes and the fact that sugar maples generally don't make good street trees. They have a lifespan of about 75 years and can live longer, but don't grow well in compacted soil along roads.
Yet a line of four sugar maples just south of the 40-acre Memorial Gardens on Veterans Drive could qualify in height and age as surviving sentinels. They stand in front of an adjacent house and cemetery office just south of the cemetery. The Record-Eagle was unable to find anyone who could confirm they are the original trees.
According to Record-Eagle reports, about 200 people attended the 1924 Arbor Day dedication of Memorial Avenue. Dr. George Holliday, commander of the Bowen-Holliday Post 35¸ was a speaker and also the father of Harry Holliday, who died in France, and served during the war on transport ships.
"I like to think of them as my boys," he said. "I knew nearly all by their first names. I saw them on this side, on shipboard and on the other side (in France), and I never saw a Grand Traverse County boy once misconduct himself as a soldier and a gentlemen."
Traverse City was just one of many municipalities across the nation to create memorial highways, an idea brought home from France as well as encouraged by President Warren Harding who said in 1922 that America was in the age of the "motor car." He signed the Federal Highway Act of 1921 and over the next two years the federal government spent $162 million on building the nation's highway system.
M-11 was part of two early "auto trails" to encourage tourism in the state and along the west coast of Michigan from Chicago to the Mackinac Straits: the Dixie Highway system, which started in Sault Ste. Marie and ended in Florida, and the West Michigan Pike, now U.S. 31.