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WWI Memorial Needs New Home
St. Louis Post-Dispatch | November 23, 2007ST. LOUIS -- Almost a decade after World War I, the loss of their sons still haunted mothers of the war dead.
In 1925, they began building a memorial to those from the St. Louis area who had died in the war. They found some comfort in it. They believed the memorial would keep their sons' memories alive.
Today, all that remains of the memorial are some of the markers that recorded the dead men's names. For the last few years, most of them have been gathering dust while stashed amid used furniture and other castoffs in a south St. Louis garage.
Some of those markers are now on display, for the first time in 25 years, at St. Louis County's Jefferson Barracks County Park. "These men deserve to be remembered," said Skip Berger, an Army veteran who is the markers' main caretaker.
Road construction in the 1960s and 1980s destroyed the memorial the mothers created on north Kingshighway Boulevard. City workers and members of the Rallo-Calcaverra American Legion Post 15 on the Hill managed to save some of the bronze discs. Berger is a member of that post. The rescuers used metal detectors to locate the markers and move them to safety.
Most memorials at the time were monuments to groups -- great granite rocks with bronze plaques and rows of names in tiny type. The mothers created 1,185 individual bronze markers, each the size and shape of a discus, shaded by sycamore trees in a park.
Every man from the area that the mothers could determine had died in World War I had his own marker. Some died fighting, some died of Spanish Influenza and other illnesses contracted in the frigid, muddy trenches.
The memorial discs bore the five-pointed star that is the nation's symbol of honor for war dead. The Soldier, Sailor or Marine's name and cause of death were cast into the disc.
The memorial stretched north on Kingshighway Boulevard from what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard to what is now Interstate 70.
All that remains today are a few sycamore trees, their ragged sheets of gray bark hanging on beige trunks. City workers don't know if those trees were part of the memorial planting. But the sycamores, which can live as long as 300 years, show what the trees in the memorial would look like today. They are three stories high, with wide and sturdy trunks and broad yellow-green leaves.
Within 10 years of its creation, the memorial had begun to deteriorate. Dirt and grass crept over the markers. People who know the memorial's history say that was because there was no plan to maintain it nor money set aside for its care.
In 1962, during the construction of I-70, bulldozers plowed some of the markers under and rolled over others, crushing them into pieces. City workers saved 100. No paper trail that city employees nor representatives of the Post-Dispatch, Missouri Historical Society, Mercantile Library or St. Louis Public Library could find indicates where those markers are now. Berger believes they are among those stored in the garage.
In 1982, as part of the widening of Kingshighway, the earthmovers returned and again destroyed many markers. City workers and members of the Legion post managed to save more than 600. The people who salvaged those markers say they are in the garage and in the display at Jefferson Barracks County Park.
There could be more markers. During road construction, nobody needed permission to salvage them. One man who'd heard about the exhibit turned over a marker from the memorial that been an heirloom in his family.
More than 400 of the markers are on display in the Old Ordnance Room, the Visitors Center and the Powder Magazine at Jefferson Barracks County Park. Some 752, or about two-thirds of the original markers, are known to still exist.
Marc Kollbaum, curator of the museums, says the discs drew visitors who came to a recent World War I exhibit. It was at the markers where people clumped up, stood silently and read.
The Legion post has custody of the markers, and its members have decided to temporarily place them with the Jefferson Barracks County Park. Markers will continue to hang in the visitors center and the museums, and families can talk to a docent about individual markers.
"These plaques are made to be seen," Berger said. "They are grave markers. Each represents someone who died for his country."
Post 15 is looking for a qualified group that can provide the markers a permanent home and is financially able to guarantee perpetual care. The Daughters of the American Revolution, the Gold Star Mothers and St. Louis County's Jefferson Barracks County Park are all working with the Legion members.
One of the markers that made it through the decades honors George E. Larson of St. Louis, who enlisted in the Navy at the beginning of the war. He came from a line of boat builders.
While overseas, he contracted an illness -- his family isn't sure what it was. He died at 24. He didn't have a chance to fall in love with a girl, court her, marry her and raise a family. He hadn't crossed the minds of his siblings' descendants until the markers came to light.
One day, Skip Berger was talking with Terry Larson of Union about the markers. Larson, an auto parts dealer, recalled his grandparents mentioning that he had a great-uncle who had died in World War I. Berger showed him the marker for George E. Larson. That sent the younger Larson scurrying for more information.
He found a photo. Dapper in a bow-tie, George E. Larson's hair is full and dark. His eyes large.
Moved, Terry Larson visited his great-uncle's grave. Because of the marker, George E. Larson lives again in his family's memory.
"I feel we've gotten a family member back," Terry Larson said.
Other families who have seen their relatives' markers have had similar experiences. Even in remnants, the memorial the grieving mothers created is doing its job -- keeping the memory of their sons alive.
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