American Legion Memorial Trees
While biking on Mariners Trail this summer, I noticed three large trees on the west side of Memorial Drive in Two Rivers. Two were near the new HFM Lakefront Campus; one was near Schwartz Mfg. Co. The trees were enormous, and each had the distinctive vase shape of a mature American elm, once dominant along city streets in America.
The trees are the last of several hundred elms planted along the highway in 1928 by the American Legion Robert E. Burns Post of Two Rivers in memory of soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice in World War I.
On January 8, 1928, the American Legion Burns Post held a special meeting to finalize plans for a memorial lane of trees along State Highway 17, a two-lane concrete road completed along the lake shore between Two Rivers and Manitowoc in 1927. The special tree committee, chaired by Hubert A. Schroeder, consisted of Lyman Fischer, Raymond Schneider, Roland Bleser, John Mezera and Peter Beitzel.
By mid-February of 1928, a campaign to raise funds for tree planting was well underway. The committee mailed 2,200 letters of appeal, asking for a small contribution from residents of Two Rivers and the vicinity. The suggested donation was 25¢. It was anticipated many in the community would make larger donations to support the civic beautification project.
By late spring, the Legion tree fund had passed the $2900 mark. Money was still being received, and it was expected the $3000 mark would be passed before long. Names of donors to the tree fund appeared in the local newspaper.
In June, the Legion awarded a contract for $2500 to Christ Hansen, florist at Two Rivers, for purchasing and planting 925 elms. That fall, the Burns Post of the American Legion put out a call for 40 volunteer workers for Saturday, October 6 to assist in preparing the highway for planting the elm trees. By October 18, Hansen and the Legion boys had completed planting the elms.
The Legion plan was heartedly endorsed by both the City of Two Rivers and Manitowoc County officials. County trucks hauled black topsoil to fill the holes dug for trees, and the city provided a flusher truck to water trees and equipment to haul fertilizer.
In all, the Burns Post planted 900 American elms with a height of eight feet, 40 feet apart, on both sides of the new 30-foot wide concrete highway, completed in 1927. The avenue of memorial trees extended from the city limits at Roosevelt Avenue past Forget-Me-Not Creek (near present day Woodland Drive) to a curve in the highway at the Felix Pauly farm (later the Mid-Cities Mall property) in the City of Manitowoc.
On November 21, 1928 the County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution naming the lake shore highway “American Legion Memorial Drive.” Plans to place brass tablets, set in concrete, near the base of the trees in memoriam of deceased members of the Legion, both at Two Rivers and Manitowoc, never materialized.
While the Legion was planning the memorial tree project, Joseph Connell, Manitowoc County Highway Commissioner, passed away on Sunday, June 17, 1928. His sudden death was a shock to the community and robbed the county of a capable and conscientious official.
On August 14, an editorial in the Manitowoc Herald-News suggested the naming of the new lake shore drive between Manitowoc and Two Rivers in honor of Mr. Connell in recognition of his work in the interest of improved highways in the county. The local paper stated: “No one individual gave more to the cause of improved highways in Manitowoc county that did Joseph Connell and credit for the wide driveway, the first established in Wisconsin, was largely due to his efforts in securing the co-operation of the state commission to grant funds from the special monies of the commission for the road. Mr. Connell personally planned the wide roadway and gave supervision to its construction.”
The editorial concluded: “Mr. Connell was one of the best known and well beloved citizens of Manitowoc and there will be a unanimous endorsement of the suggestion that a lasting memorial to his name and work be founded.”
At a meeting of the County Board of Supervisors on November 20, 1928, a resolution naming the concrete highway, built in 1927, between Manitowoc and Two Rivers, “Connell Drive” in memory of the faithful services rendered by Joseph Connell to Manitowoc County was adopted unanimously. The resolution also instructed the County Highway Committee to mark the road as such.
The Two Rivers Legion Post, at their regular meeting that evening, protested the action of the county board, without informing them of its plans as it was their understanding that the highway would be known as “American Legion Memorial Drive.” Accusing the county board of acting a bit hastily and not considering their work of planting 1,000 elms along the highway, the Legion post decided to send a representative to the county board meeting the following day to take the matter up directly with county board members.
On November 21, Lorenz Lueck and Lyman Fisher addressed the county board at their morning session and presented the matter from the standpoint of the local Legion post. Upon a motion by Wenzel A. Tomek, who represented the Fourth Ward, City of Two Rivers, the resolution naming Highway 17 between Manitowoc and Two Rivers “Connell Drive” was rescinded. That day, the Manitowoc Herald-News reported the county board had named the lake shore highway “American Legion Memorial Drive,” in deference to the wishes of the Burns Post.
Today, as you drive, bike or walk along Memorial Drive, visualize what the highway corridor once looked like before the stately native shade trees were destroyed by Dutch elm disease, old age and road widening. But most of all, reflect on the meaning of the name of this well traveled thoroughfare and remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country.