By Michael J. Billoni
Members of the DeGlopper Memorial Expansion Committee enjoy talking about the many Town of Grand Island residents, businesses and organizations that have donated their time, resources or funds over the years to create what has been developed at the corner of Baseline Road and Grand Island Boulevard.
One group volunteering to enhance the beauty of that site for the past 42 years has been the East Park Garden Club, and they are especially looking forward to planting their colorful flowers this year for Memorial Day and the dedication of the Charles N. DeGlopper life-sized statue on June 5.
“Fay McDonald has been involved since the beginning and it is fantastic what she and the East Park Garden Club members have done there. This year will be spectacular. They have some great plans to bring a lot more color to the space,” said Dan Drexelius, the DeGlopper Memorial Expansion Committee’s project manager.
McDonald has been a Garden Club member since 1966 and is its coordinator for the DeGlopper site. She said the club now has 14 active and dedicated members who are near or past 80 years young. The club plants and maintains the gardens at the Sidway School on Baseline Road and the DeGlopper Memorial, where they planted their first gardens in time for the town’s initial Memorial Day ceremony in 1962.
In 1957, the Community Council recommended the town acquire this plot of land for war memorial purposes, according to the Garden Club’s history of DeGlopper Memorial Park. The land was deeded to the town by the Grand Island Plaza developers, and an easement was obtained on a portion owned by New York state. At the time, the triangular space was much smaller than it is today because there was a gas station at the north end. Nearly 10, years ago the gas station property was donated to the American Legion Post 1346 and the space was expanded.
In 1960, when Grand Island’s population was 9,607, the town officially named the site DeGlopper Memorial Park in honor of the town’s World War II hero who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor after sacrificing his life in 1944 during the Battle of Normandy. The following year the American Legion Post 1346 moved the Killed in Action monument from Ferry Road to its current home at the south end of the DeGlopper Memorial and in 1962, the town held its first Memorial Day ceremony at the site to recognize all town veterans.
On April 17, 1962, former Town Supervisor George L. Thorne officially appointed Mrs. James L. Olmstead, chair of the East Park Garden Club, to lead the efforts to beautify the park in time for the Memorial Day ceremony. That date culminated months of work by members of the garden club and town officials as they created plans, drawn to scale on plot plans provided by the town engineer for the DeGlopper Memorial Park. The plans were submitted to a landscape architect and horticulture adviser who made recommendations before the garden club’s executive committee secured pricing on the trees and plant materials from three nurseries, working with a small budget from the town.
Menno Mennes Nurseries Inc. on Niagara Falls Boulevard in North Tonawanda was chosen, and here are the items Olmstead and her committee ordered, which the nursery planted and guaranteed for one year:
8 Austrian Pines, 8-9-feet, $552; 6 Euonymus Alatus, 5-feet, $51; 3 Lemoine Deutzia, $10; 12 Hetzi Junipers, 24-inches, $124.50; 35 Golden Syringa, 18-inches, $109; 1 Three-Leader Clump Birch, 14-feet, $68; 50 Red Barberry, 24-inches, $59; 61 Red Barberry, 18-inches, $61; 6 Hicksi Yew, $132; 2 Almey Crab, 11/2-inch caliper, $42.50; 1 Paul Scarlet Hawthorne, 11/2-inch caliper, $42.50; 22 Andorra Junipers, 24-inches, $149.60; 7 Prunus Newport, 7-feet, $21. Less a $110 discount, the total was $1,479.60. In addition, they purchased 19 flats of annuals at $3.50 each for $66.50 and 500 tulips at 7 cents apiece for $35, and a total expenditure of $1.581.40.
Five bales of peat moss were donated by the American Legion Post 1346 and applied by garden club members, and four white iron benches were also donated by the American Legion and its Women’s Auxiliary. With the addition of a water fountain at the north end, the memorial park became “a sitting park,” according to the garden club book.
The garden club’s executive committee supervised the planting of the trees and nursery stock and the 2,100 annuals, consisting of St. John’s Salvia, Paleface and Comanche Petunias and Carpet-of-Snow Alyssum were planted by members of the Girl Scout Troop 1054, Campfire Girls, GaWeNot Troop, Brownie Troop and members of the garden club, who also planted the tulip bulbs. In addition to its executive committee, the garden club also had a chair and members for the following committees: Pinching Back, Weeding and Labeling. William Disbrow provided permanent wooden signs and Mrs. Olmstead lettered them with the names of the trees and nursery stock.
The focal point of the park back then was the KIA Monument, surrounded by white marble chips and the flowers.
In the historical garden club book about the park opening, it is written: “As the park matures, more and more Islanders will visit it in a contemplative mood, reflecting on the past and the great implications of the memorial. It is our hope that in some small way this memorial park, as well as the thousands of others throughout the world, will help remind people of the horrors of war and augment the desire for world peace.”
The book also contains several testimonial letters to the garden club about their work at the DeGlopper Park. “I want to thank your group for the exceptional job,” wrote Thorne. “From the number of glowing comments, we have received relative to the park, we know the citizens of Grand Island are also well pleased.”
Ray Griffin, manager of Lane Drugs, which used to be in the plaza, wrote: “The triangular piece of land that comprises the DeGlopper Memorial Park is now a delightful exhibition of beauty at the very center of Grand Island. May I express not only my compliments but also those of the many residents and tourists who have commented to me about this charming picture that the DeGlopper Park presents to the passing motorist.”
Town Building Inspector Harold J. Doerr wrote: “Not only is the garden alive, refreshing and active with its lovely color changes from time to time as it enshrines the DeGlopper Memorial area, but the faithful raising and lowering of our National Flag in its central location daily presents this garden of honor and beauty as a breathing shrine.”
Because of restrictions against large gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, last year’s Memorial Day ceremony was not held for the public, but McDonald is hopeful things will change this year, which also includes the unveiling of the statue.
“Now that everything is reconstructed, the park looks great,” said McDonald, who has discussed the plants they will need for this year with her committee. Her husband, Rich, is a veteran and he assists with the gardening.
“At this point in our lives, it makes us feel so proud to be an American, especially with all we have been through this past year,” she said. “Even during the pandemic, we would meet at the park during the summer to weed the gardens. It would make us feel so good.”
McDonald is especially pleased to see how all veterans will be recognized at the DeGlopper Memorial. “Deservedly so, a lot more attention seems to be given to our veterans. This has become far more than when we began, but to see all that has gone on there with so many volunteers from our community is impressive. I have worked with Dan Drexelius on the gardening project for years and I know what a passionate man he is. There are so many like him on this project and this particular project for our veterans is one of the reasons I have stuck with it all these years.”
Rosemary Madejski, president of the East Park Garden Club, is extremely proud of McDonald’s dedication to the park and her members efforts each year. “We have enhanced the beauty of the park,” she said.
During Mary Cooke’s term as town supervisor, she attended the Erie County Sheriff’s Citizen’s Academy in 2014, and one of the tours was through the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden. During the tour, she became aware of the horticulture program it offers inmates and the three green houses to grow vegetables and flowers. She also learned flowers are available at no cost, but they cannot be sold, and must be placed in public places. She then applied for the flowers using Grand Island Town Hall and the DeGlopper Memorial Park as the destination for them.
“Once we were approved, I contacted a few friends and we drove a trailer to Alden and received 90 geranium plants, which we split between Town Hall and the park,” Cooke recalls. “We have now been providing them to Fay every year. It was an amazing experience for me, and it is an excellent program for the prisoners.”
In addition, McDonald receives flowers for the park from the greenhouses at McKinley High School through Dan Robillard, a teacher in the school’s horticulture program and the administrative chair of the DeGlopper Memorial Expansion Committee.
Cooke, who is not a member of the garden club but volunteers with them at the DeGlopper Memorial, cannot say enough about the club.
“The gardens in this park would not be possible without the dedication of these members,” she said. “The town could never take on such a project. With their experience, they know exactly what plants and shrubs will work there and they plant and maintain them throughout the summer and fall. They are extremely well organized.