Karen O’Maxfield was in the Ice House, a public works outbuilding at Colt Park in Hartford, Connecticut, last year when she stumbled on a large number of cast iron plaques. They were in a pile on the dirt floor of the basement, topped and surrounded with junk like an old plastic milk jug and random bits of tubing. O’Maxfield took some pictures and shared them on Facebook where they were spotted by Hartford history buffs Greg Secord and Lynn Ferrari. The three got together and began researching and inventorying the plaques.
They discovered in the archives of the Hartford Courant that the plaques had once been part of a memorial to the 207 Hartford men who died in World War I. The memorial began in 1920 with the planting of 189 elm trees along the pathways encircling the track, dance floor (cool park!) and baseball diamonds in Colt Park. Mayor Newton C. Brainard, himself a history lover who decades later would become president of the Connecticut Historical Society, presided over the ceremony. Each tree was adorned with a small name marker. It was called the Trees of Honor memorial.
Six years later, the Rau-Locke American Legion Post 8 replaced the four-inch name markers with substantial cast iron ones on poles beside the trees, now a complete set of 207. Each plaque was approximately 12-by-10 inches and embossed with the name of a deceased soldier, his rank, the location where he fell and the date. For years the city commemorated their sacrifice at the memorial every Armistice Day (renamed to Veterans Day in 1954) on November 11th.
It’s unclear when exactly the plaques were removed, but it was in the 1960s that almost all of the trees were killed by Dutch elm disease, a fungus spread by bark beetles that first arrived in New England in 1928. The trees were destroyed and the plaques put into storage. The basement of the Ice House was not a great place for them. The dirt floor was prone to flooding and over time the plaques were damaged. Some were cracked; all were tarnished. Others were lost altogether.
When they were rediscovered, there were only 179 plaques out of the original 207. We know the names of the men whose plaques are missing, thanks to a list published in the 1920s by the Hartford Courant. (You can see the complete list here.) Secord, Ferrari and O’Maxfield are working to replace the 30 missing and broken plaques. They’ve started a Facebook group, Hartford Heroes, and a GoFundMe project to raise money for the replacements. Each one costs $325 for a total of $9,750.
Thankfully Competitive Edge Coatings, a South Windsor powder coating company, stepped up to the plate and offered to restore the existing plaques free of charge.
“To know that these plaques in memory of people who lived in Hartford were put down in this building and left unnoticed, I feel that they should be out where people can see them,” said Damon Schuster, who co-owns the shop with Chris Scutnik. They cut the tarnish with a blast of glass beads, which brought out the original metal and redefined the details. They then applied a number of powder coatings to some plaques.
The American Legion post that originally funded the plaques in 1926 is still in existence today. It is working with other organizations and the city to recreate the memorial in Colt Park, complete with new trees. Since 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, it would be fitting if the goal could be accomplished this year.