A tree grows in Heritage Park

If trees screamed, would we be so eager to cut them down? Maybe. If they screamed all the time for no good reason. (Jack Handey)

Editor’s note: We have had many requests to reprint selections from “What’s Up With That?”, a column devoted to answering reader inquiries regarding the history, mysteries and enigmas of Greater Dundalk that ran in The Eagle from 1999 to 2005. This week’s choice seemed appropriate as we head into the park to enjoy Heritage Fair. And, yeah, I wrote it. But, we really did receive a lot of requests.

First printed 2001

History is a tricky thing. Sure, if you’re talking about a battle or a king or a civilization that built something that can be seen from space, there’ll be hordes of earnest graduate students sifting, analyzing and publishing mountains of print about the smallest details.

But, when it comes to local history, familiarity seems to breed contempt. Local history is by definition, ahem, local. The fewer people it impacts, the smaller the chance that somebody is going to write a doctoral thesis about it. As a result, a community’s heritage often lives only in the memories of the people who lived through it. And human memories do not last forever.

But these thoughts were far from my mind when Elizabeth Kelly of Township Road told me a story she had heard many years ago. According to this tale, enterprising individuals planted a tree for each state of the union in Heritage Park. Now I spend a lot of time in Heritage Park. Because of willful inattention of some whose dogs use the park, I spend more time looking down than up. I have noticed, however, that there seem to be an awful lot of different tree species in the park. This observation is most easily made in the spring, when blooms of various shapes and colors appear.

I had never considered the origin of these trees. But Ms. Kelly’s question made me look at the issue. Was it possible that some patriotic plan governed the selection of the trees in Heritage Park? I determined to delve into the matter.

I started asking around and found a few people who had also heard the story. But no one had any hard facts or details beyond secondhand reports. Finally, I was given a file once owned by Minuetta Waters, now deceased. Ms. Waters, I discovered, had been a member of the Women’s Club of Dundalk and, along with other club members like Irene White and Dorothy Jennewine, oversaw a project to catalog, preserve and plant trees in Heritage Park.

The file was tucked tantalizingly into a 1940 catalog of trees and shrubs. It included hand-drawn maps of the park dated Jan. 29, 1972. These maps identify the location of 164 trees of 36 varieties.

The file confirmed the decades-long efforts of the Women’s Club to keep Heritage Park, and other local sites, beautiful. But it didn’t reveal anything about the alleged United States theme of the trees. I began to suspect that the story Ms. Kelly heard might simply be another local legend like the fabled, but false, extreme depth of Stansbury Pond. After a series of dead ends in the investigation, I was prepared to let the matter go.

That is, however, until I turned to the last scrap of paper in the file. It is a faded sheet torn from a yellow legal pad on which someone has typed a long list of common and scientific names of trees under the heading “OFFICIAL TREES OF THE STATES”. At the bottom of the page, the typist included a note identifying the list as coming from the April 1971 edition of Flower and Garden Magazine.

This list created in me a strong suspicion that the makers of the file were aware of the story of the state-based tree plan and were, perhaps, attempting to confirm it. Or the makers of the file might have been the ones responsible for the plan.

The two tree lists corresponded several times. The map identifies the locations, for example, of the state trees of Pennsylvania (eastern hemlock), Delaware (American holly), Maine (eastern white pine), Indiana (tulip), Nebraska (American elm), Virginia and Missouri (both dogwood) and, of course, Maryland (white oak). The map also reveals the location in the park of a sugar maple, the state tree of Vermont, New York, West Virginia and Wisconsin (what kind of lame states can’t come up with their own trees?).

The two lists did not match exactly. There are, for example, only 36 species listed on the park map, and not all of the trees identified correspond to a state tree. But this fact does not necessarily invalidate the theory. There are certain state trees that will not grow in our climate. The Hawaiian candlenut, for example, or the South Carolina saw palmetto requires more tropical climes. Nor could the mighty giant redwood of California grow here, though the park contained a dawn redwood, perhaps to honor the Golden State with a locally viable cousin.

The number of trees doesn’t tank the story either. There were only 48 states when the park was laid out in 1918. That number remained unchanged until 1959. Fewer states combined with the necessities of climate and the duplication of state trees might have led to a truncated list. And some trees might have died between when they were planted and when the survey took place in 1971.

But did they? Did the park once have a U.S. state theme? And, if it did, why? Who chose such a theme? Though I continued searching after I found the file, I was ultimately unsuccessful. Now I turn imploringly to you. Get the records out of the trunk in the attic and leaf through them. When you get to the root of the mystery, call me. I’ll give you credit in a future column in which I hereby promise not to make any more bad tree puns.

(According to our records, this mystery was never solved. You can still submit information to editor@dundalkeagle.net. For that matter, if you have any questions regarding Dundalk’s history or mysteries, send them along too. They might have been answered in one of these columns. Or they might require a fresh investigation.)

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