Justice restored for fallen WWI veterans as elm tree project is completed
MOUNT VERNON — Fifty elm trees now stand along Memorial Highway as living tributes to Skagit County’s 50 soldiers and sailors who lost their lives during World War I.
On Saturday, more than 70 people gathered at the Discovery Garden at the Washington State University Extension campus to recognize the project’s completion and the 100th anniversary of the war’s end.
Al Call, a 22-year Army veteran and one of the original leaders of the elm tree project, opened the ceremony with a history lesson.
In the 1930s, Memorial Highway was dedicated to Skagit’s fallen WWI veterans and 180 elm trees brought from Iowa by train were planted on both sides of the road.
In the early 1950s, nearly all the trees disappeared from what many believed to be Dutch elm disease, but that disease didn’t spread to Skagit County until the ’90s, Call said. What actually happened was the state highway department removed the trees when the road was widened.
Call was the president of the Master Gardener Foundation a few years back when he decided something had to be done to right that wrong. With the help of the foundation, WSU Mount Vernon and other community members, the first five elms were planted in 2015.
Wrapping up his address Saturday, Call gave special thanks to the Master Gardeners’ 150 members, Dike District 1 for donating land for the project and a Mount Vernon High School student named Emma Sundance who made the elm trees her senior project.
Sundance — whose father Rich Sundance is a retired Navy chief and commander with the Disabled American Veterans of Skagit Valley — got involved four years ago while attending a memorial ceremony at the WSU Extension campus.
While hearing the names of the 50 fallen soldiers as an eighth-grader, Sundance said she couldn’t help thinking they were only a few years older than her when they died.
“They didn’t have graves here. Their graves were these trees,” she said.
The 17-year-old spent the last two years raising funds for the remaining elms and their accompanying plaques, each one costing $300.
Many donors listened in the crowd, including those from the Master Gardeners, Lefeber Turf Farm, Jefferson Elementary School and the Fire and Iron Motorcycle Club of Skagit County, whose annual ride brought in enough money for eight trees.
“I feel excited and content,” Sundance said after her speech. “I feel like everything is at peace now and that justice has been restored.”