Kent’s ‘mother neighborhood’ celebrates the memory of its elders

Visitors at the Thomas-Anderson Memorial Garden for the Grove of Elders dedication on July 23, 2022. Photo by Doria Daniels

Organizers of the Thomas-Anderson Memorial Garden in Kent celebrated the dedication of a new “Grove of Elders” on Saturday, joining with family members of people honored as pillars of the South End neighborhood.

The community garden, founded in March 2021, is the dream of Doria Daniels, who donated the land at 1110 Walnut St. and has led a small army of volunteers and supporters to create a bastion of produce and greenery in the recently dedicated historic district.

Today the Garden is overflowing with lush vegetables, herbs and flowers, each section dedicated to a South Ender. There’s Miss Rita’s Pollinator garden, complete with a bee hotel. Mother Willie Mae’s Healing Herbs. Miss Tweet’s Soul Garden.

Each section was dedicated in turn, and Saturday it was time for the Grove of Elders, 10 fruit saplings dedicated to the memory of a loved one who had South End roots.

Daniels greeted family members of those memorialized in the grove to an all-out celebration Saturday, urging each of them to enjoy the catered dinner and dance at Kent’s American Legion.

Joining the families were volunteers, many of them associated with the Kent Environmental Council, whose members help translate Daniels’ vision into reality.

Donna Craver-Dean is one of the volunteers. In 2021, she saw KEC President Renee Ruchotzke’s Facebook post about a groundbreaking ceremony and decided to show up. Since Craver had lived in the South End for years, she knew Daniels. For true South Enders, it’s hard not to.

Little did Craver-Dean know what she was getting herself into. Before long, Craver-Dean was hauling and spreading horse manure. Her daughter Eden was co-opted, and slowly Daniels’ lot took shape.

Sharon Watts Smith grew up on Harris Street, where a cherry tree graced the front yard. Little wonder she decided to add a cherry tree to the Grove of Elders. The sapling is dedicated to the Head sisters: Anna M. Thomas, Willie Lee Watts, Lois Little and Sharon’s mother, Gladys Watts.

Judy Morgan, Smith’s cousin and Anna’s daughter, grew up in Cleveland but recalls almost weekly trips to Kent’s South End.

“We were so very close to our aunts and mothers. Today when I sat in the garden I was moved to tears,” she said.

The sisters died in the order they were born, leaving only their brother Frank to carry on.

“They were so close. They were part of that South End history,” Judy said.

Tim Krasselt sat quietly, taking the celebration in. As always, thoughts of his husband Roger Di Paolo were foremost in his heart and mind.

“Roger’s roots began in the South End. That was his history,” Krasselt said. “He always said that’s ‘the mother neighborhood of Kent.’”

Italian, Polish, German and Irish immigrants who arrived in Kent in the 1860s were not welcome in Kent’s “more desirable” neighborhoods, Daniels said. Many did not speak English but found work in Kent’s rail yards and settled in the South End.

Black workers arrived after a railroad strike that took place during World War I but found themselves in territory as unwelcoming as the sharecroppers’ farms from which they had fled. Some, Daniels said, were forced to live in abandoned box cars.

“They had the same ambitions as the European immigrants — the desire to improve their socio-economic status and the desire to own their own land,” Daniels noted in a formal presentation she prepared.

Before his death in 2021, Di Paolo worked successfully with Daniels to get Kent City Council to recognize the South End as a historic neighborhood. That recognition came in 2019.

Krasselt chose to add a peach tree to the grove because peaches were Roger’s favorite fruit, he told Daniels.

Though John Thomas has moved over to Kent’s Chadwick Drive neighborhood, he recalls his South End childhood fondly. He credits his sister Vicki Craigie Thomas as being the driving force behind their family’s fig tree dedication. Figs, Vicki told Daniels, reminded her of the family’s Italian roots.

Their father Victor Thomas (Anglicized from the Italian Vittorio DiTomaso) and mother Antonietta came from the old country, eventually settling at the corner of Dodge Street and Franklin Ave, Thomas said.

Victor Thomas arrived in Kent in 1920, and settled in the South End in the 1950s, when most other Italians were leaving, Thomas said.

“It was a way to memorialize them, to give permanency to their memory, their spirit,” John Thomas said. “That there were people here in this section of town that helped forge the South End community, and I’m happy to say that my parents were two of them.”

Howard Boyle, chairman of Hometown Bank and a local history buff, dedicated a tree to his grandparents, Harry and Hannah May Boyle. They lived at 800 Franklin Ave. from 1910 to 1934, he said.

Boyle never met his grandfather but remembers his grandmother as a sweet person who bore 10 children in the home’s front room. His grandfather worked in Kent’s railroad yards until 1932, when the shops closed, he said.

Remembering that Cortland apples were popular when his grandparents lived in the South End, Boyle said he decided to plant an apple tree.

“My father told me that his parents would put a barrel of apples in a cool place, and all the kids would snack on them whenever hungry,” Boyle said. “Sort of a 1920s afternoon pick-me-up!”

A century later, nothing is left but memories.

“There’s probably nobody alive who even knew them, so the least I can do is plant a tree,” he said softly.

Also dedicated Saturday was a Trex bench donated by the Kent Lions Club. Made of recycled grocery bags and other plastics, it will be placed in the Grove of Elders, a place for some people to remember and others to simply enjoy the soft sounds of singing birds.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.