Storm knocks down 100-year-old tree at Memorial Park honoring Rochelle’s WWI dead

One of the casualties of the March 31 storm that hit the area was a 100-year-old tree at Memorial Park honoring those that died serving their country in World War I, Flagg Township Museum Historian Tom McDermott said.

Cuttings taken from tree for possible replanting

ROCHELLE — One of the casualties of the March 31 storm that hit the area was a 100-year-old tree at Memorial Park honoring those that died serving their country in World War I, Flagg Township Museum Historian Tom McDermott said. 

The tree was uprooted completely and was found the morning of April 1. Near the upturned roots, the plaque commemorating it that reads “This tree planted in memory of Rochelle World War dead” still stood. 

Upon hearing of the loss of the tree, McDermott and his granddaughter, Kathryn Challand, went to inspect it and took pictures and notes for the museum. Upon his return home, the historian looked into the tree’s history. He spoke to the News-Leader on April 6 about what he found.

Back in 1922, the Rochelle Woman’s Club had a desire to have a park in Rochelle. The fairgrounds was a place for community recreation beforehand, but closed down in 1902 when the Vassar Swiss Underwear Company bought part of the land to build their wool works, which later became Caron Spinning. 

Without a park in town, Laura Fessler led a charge to have one in Rochelle. After her passing, the Rochelle Woman's Club kept up the effort and bought what would eventually become Memorial Park from Frank Benson of Dixon for $1,000 in 1922. The land was then donated to the city. Rochelle didn’t have a park district until 1966.

Initially, the area was called Oak Park, and it even had an arch with its name, similar to the arch in the park now that later replaced it. 

On July 12, 1923, a gifting party was held for the donation of the park to the city, including a band, hot dogs and baseball games. As part of that day, American Legion Post 403, led by George O’Brien, donated the tree in question.

“It was a big party,” McDermott said. “As part of that overall party, they changed the name to Memorial Park and it was to honor the veterans of World War I. They put a plaque in and planted the tree, which is a fir tree of some kind. That would have been in 1923. The beautiful thing is, it was exactly 100 years ago this year."

According to a list provided by McDermott, the tree honored those that gave their lives in WWI from Rochelle or the immediate area including: Walter Tigan, William Patton, Willis Storer, Pat Manning, William Rupe, Maine Groen, Glen Jaquet, Harry Strawbridge, Frank Pool, William Sherwood, William Holmes, Leo Sherlock, William Wolf, Jay Carpenter, Werne Lamont, Harold Alcock, Charles Grunstad and John Moore.

Challand takes notes for her grandfather when he’s doing historical work around town such as the day the tree fell. A conversation they had that day moved them to take action.

“I picked her up and she said, 'Well it's too bad we can't do something about it,'” McDermott said. “I said it's too big to stand back up, but I have read about people doing cuttings, putting them in water and then they grow roots. She said, 'Well what would that be?' And I said it'd still be a 100-year-old tree. Because it's the same tree. And it could live to be 200 years old. She thought that was the bee's knees.”

The pair took cuttings from the tree in hopes that they’ll grow roots and be able to be planted again in a couple of years. McDermott asked that anyone with expertise in the area of replanting tree cuttings that may be able to help email him at [email protected].

The Flagg-Rochelle Community Park District is planning to plant another tree in the spot that housed the WWI tree at Memorial Park. McDermott said Park District Executive Director Jackee Ohlinger has promised him space in the park system for replanting if the tree can be saved through the cuttings. 

“I would love in two years to be able to drive by with my granddaughter and say, 'Look, that's a 102-year-old tree now,'” McDermott said. “It's the concept of somebody putting in effort to keep it alive. The best thing that could happen is if my 10-12 cuttings all take and somebody else gets some cuttings and we end up with 30 200-year-old trees and there's two in each park. I'm sure the city could find a place to put one tree in honor of our veterans. The VFW could be involved. There's just so much cool stuff that could come of it. The worst-case scenario is we stay where we are today with the tree dead."

Challand has a family connection to WWI and the organization that donated the tree. Her great great grandfather, Charles E. Kepner, fought in the war and was a member of the American Legion.

“Things happen. Stuff dies. I know that,” McDermott said. “I don't make the decisions. I just think if there's a chance to save it and two weeks of inactivity causes us to miss that window, that's a heartbreaker for me. My 14-year-old granddaughter can see the value of trying to keep history alive.”