Now that the weather is nice, it’s time to get outside and do some exploring. I’m not talking about ME; I’m saying that’s something YOU should do. And there’s no better (or nicer) place to start than by crawling underneath all those lovely magnolia trees in Chickasaw Gardens.
What are we — I mean, you — looking for around all those trees? Remnants of the little copper plaques stuck in the ground that identified the various people who were included in the Magnolia Tribute Circle. And when the Chickasaw Gardens security patrol asks what the heckfire you are doing, just tell them Vance sent you. They will laugh and laugh as they haul you off to jail.
Seriously, though: All those grand magnolias were planted in the 1930s around Chickasaw Gardens Lake, and the adjacent roads, once a part of Clarence Saunders’ famed Pink Palace estate. In 1931, Mrs. E.G. Willingham, chairman of the City Beautiful Commission, came up with the idea for the Magnolia Tribute Circle. Each year, four or five trees would be dedicated to prominent Memphians whose names were submitted to a secret committee who “selects those deemed worthy,” according to an article in The Commercial Appeal. This was a tough crowd, it seems. No selections were made in 1939 “because the committee felt nominees did not meet the requirements of outstanding public and community service without remuneration.” No doubt this explains why there is no marker devoted to the Lauderdales. An outrage, to be sure. But those who did meet such high standards over the years included Commercial Appeal editor J.P. Mooney, Temple Israel Rabbi Harry Ettelson, civic leader Mrs. Brinkley Snowden, philanthropist Abe Goodman, and Mrs. E.G. Willingman herself — “done as a surprise to her, and over her protests,” according to one newspaper story. Oh sure, I bet.
The trees were dedicated each year on Mother’s Day, for some reason that’s not entirely clear to me, but the practice finally ended in the late 1940s, for the simple reason that they finally ran out of trees. These days, most of the little bronze or copper (I can’t tell what they are) plaques are missing, and it takes considerable crawling and scrambling under those big, low-hanging branches to reach the ones that have survived. (I’ve included a photograph of just one marker, so you’ll know what to look for.)
Some of the names mean little to visitors today — who was Major J.A. LePrince, I wonder? — and others seem a bit suspect in light of later events. Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley got a tribute tree, for example, in 1940. “We honor Judge Kelley,” said Willingham, “because she is a woman who understands youth and age. We are proud of the luster she has brought to the name of our city.” Well, that luster is now tarnished. Some years later, Kelley was implicated in the babies-for-sale racket run out of Georgia Tann’s Tennessee Children’s Home.
One tree, by the way, is named for a non-Memphian. The big magnolia with a plaque for George Washington is located at — oh, see if you can find it for yourself. All that crawling around has just worn me out.