Memorial to what?

Memorial to what?

By Susan Johnson

Memorial to what?

Before the government started its Monday holiday observance, Memorial Day was traditionally celebrated on May 30. It was originally observed to honor the Civil War dead. The first official establishment of the holiday was on May 5, 1866, in Waterloo, N.Y., complete with flags at half staff, a parade and a speech by a local minister. Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York in 1966 formally proclaimed Waterloo as the original site of Memorial Day. Prior to that, the day had been observed on April 25, 1866, to honor the Confederate and Union soldiers who died at Shiloh. The day was also known as Decoration Day.

The Vietnam War Memorial, originally surrounded by controversy about what type of monument it should be, has now been widely accepted and embraced both by veterans and their families and those who opposed the war and worked to bring it to an end.

Now a new type of memorial is in preparation—a local one. Conceived by Jim Keeling and Sunil Puri to honor their fathers, this one will take the shape of a 2.5-acre park, to be called the “Global Peace Plaza.” Sounds impressive enough. It will be located just south of Riverside Boulevard, bordered by Perryville Road on the west and McFarland Road on the east. Whether or not you think we need another memorial, at least the taxpayers aren’t being asked to finance it. The money for the first $300,000 phase has been donated by Puri, Keeling and in-kind contributions from other supporters.

And guess who’s donating the land? Winnebago County. Let’s see—isn’t that the same Winnebago County that just nine months ago ripped the heart out of a beautiful woodland on the Ditzler property on Cunningham Road? You bet your boots it is. And Winnebago County Board Chairman Kris Cohn was right there last Friday to unveil plans for this brand-new plaza and sing the praises of this memorial to peace. She reveled in the fact that the money and the land were both being donated. But as we all know, charity begins at home.

Peace? For many years, you couldn’t have found a more peaceful place than the woodland and wetland on the Ditzler back acres. This family had peace and enjoyed it, never suspecting that the county government behemoth would one day send its bulldozers out to shatter their peace forever. In a bit of legal legerdemain called quick-take, the family was quickly disinherited from their land and ordered to surrender to the government. And if everything was aboveboard and on the level, why not do it in full view of the public? But the judge who ruled against the Ditzlers didn’t even have the guts to face them in court—he ruled by means of fax.

As for the county’s means of taking possession—in an early-morning invasion more reminiscent of the attack on Pearl Harbor than legitimate county business, the engineers moved in with their bulldozers and began to destroy the Ditzlers’ paradise.

Memorial? The Ditzler land contained a Native American burial ground, complete with mounds and artifacts—a natural memorial. Nothing artificial had to be added.

The new Peace Plaza will include water. The Ditzlers had Kent Creek running through their land, winding and beautiful, visited by water birds, inhabited by lots of little creatures such as frogs, fish, dragonflies, butterflies, and its banks lined by lovely wildflowers in season. You won’t see any of that any more—not since the county dredged up the creek, diverted it and piled gravel in the stream. The creek didn’t like being told where to go and tried to regain its original channel. The county dumped in more gravel. The creek produced more silt and seepage. The result? One big mess!

We’re told that the new “Global Peace Plaza” in its first phase includes landscaping and a sculpture. No constructed landscaping could begin to match the natural beauty of the Ditzler woodland in all its glory, whose only architect was God, and was hundreds of years in the making. In fact, it seems appropriate to recall the words of Ken Bard when the county workers asked him what he thought immediately after the big white oak, “Emma,” was killed. He said, “You’ve just destroyed 200 years of history!”

As some may recall, the huge white oak affectionately named “Emma” stood like a sentinel at the entrance to the Ditzler woodland—and directly in the path of the much-vaunted road extension. Its magnificence was absolutely unmatched by anything else in the county. Adopted as a symbol of the whole area by the Ditzler supporters, it became their emblem. And naturally, it was the first victim to fall to the bulldozers.

Plans for the new Peace Plaza include a sculpture, to be called “Harmony Atlas” atop a seven-foot granite base. It will be 20 feet high by 42 feet wide. Wow! I can’t help thinking of a small, painfully poignant clay sculpture I once saw. Much less pretentious, it spoke volumes to me. This one was unveiled at the memorial service for the Ditzler trees last Labor Day weekend. Created by our friend Judy Speer, it depicts Emma’s roots crying out in pain. Is anyone still listening? I know of some that are, but it takes sensitive, caring ears to hear.

It’s interesting that Kris Cohn made a special effort to put in an appearance at the opening of this “Global Peace Plaza.” She never once found the time to go out to the Ditzler property, meet the family, take a tour and see what was going to be lost. She did make an appearance at Macktown to help celebrate their heritage and see their artifacts—a much farther distance than the Ditzler place.

It’s certainly right to remember those who gave their lives for the peace of their country. Nor should we forget that sacrifices are continually being made, even today. Many unsung heroes will never get their names in print. But some of us also want to keep a different kind of memorial.

I have one of those—some actual pieces of the once-magnificent white oak tree, Emma, which I picked up off the debris pile left by the county. I salvaged these few pieces of our dream for a beautiful, vibrant, growing, living monument to our natural heritage before the county burned it to ashes.

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