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Freedom Tree, R.I.P. 

Downtown Coeur d’Alene’s Freedom Tree stood for (and in the way of) so much — it should never be forgotten

click to enlarge art19120.jpg

The tall and stately Norway spruce, right in the middle of the Coeur d’Alene city parking lot, posed for pictures with friends last Thursday, just before its execution the very next day.

A chain-link fence has now been erected around the entire McEuen Park construction area. But the contractor thoughtfully opened the Fourth Street barrier for a few hours to let cameras catch a last glimpse of the local landmark.

For 54 years, the spruce has guarded local and visiting cars, radiated shimmering lights at Christmas and spewed its cones down upon the surrounding asphalt.

In 1972, when the plane carrying local Air Force navigator Fred McMurray was shot down over North Vietnam, the tree was enlisted to carry yellow ribbons and bring-him-home messages. The sturdy spruce was renamed the Freedom Tree in Fred’s honor.

Fred McMurray came home to a hero’s welcome after his time spent on the Missing in Action rolls, which included his solitary confinement as a prisoner of war in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton.”

Other veterans offered their dog tags to be placed on the tree’s light globes. Over time, the tree became a shrine to the community’s hopes and fears about the Vietnam War.

This month, the Freedom Tree, considered too big to move and too old to last, was removed to make way for underground parking and other features of the total makeover of McEuen Park.

It’s hard to let go of a living emblem loaded with so many memories. “Goodbye to the Freedom Tree” has dislodged many a tear. But our historic spruce is going to the Great Forest in the Sky, leaving behind a wide swath of appreciation.

A smaller 30-foot Norway spruce in the Freedom Tree’s honor will be planted as part of a newly designed Veterans’ Memorial section of McEuen Park. The new tree will stand as an ongoing symbol of support for men and women who serve in the country’s armed services. Future veterans will not be forgotten.

Forty feet of the Freedom Tree’s remains are being saved to produce appropriate mementos. Coeur d’Alene Parks Director Doug Eastwood has put out a request to the public for ideas on how to memorialize wood from the Freedom Tree. Suggestions have rolled in.

Everyone agrees that Fred McMurray and family should receive a goodly portion of the tree, in recognition of its sturdy symbolism of hope during the painful months of Fred’s captivity in the Vietnam War.

The Forest Service has taken approximately 50 cuttings, which, if they thrive, will become “offspring” of the Freedom Tree, to be given as mementos to veterans or awards to community volunteers. Other suggestions for using wood from the Freedom Tree include public benches, wood sculptures and chainsaw art for McEuen Park. We are also told spruce wood is an excellent base for hand-carved guitars and violins.

This dearly departed spruce carried an unwritten message when it first took root in the city-owned dirt. My husband Scott Reed was part of the crew who planted the tree in its very conspicuous spot in 1959. A Spokane developer had proposed buying the waterfront property from the city to build a shopping mall on the spot. Scott joined the group who called themselves the Lakeshore Development Committee because they were opposed to the sale of the public land and wanted it to be used for something else — perhaps even a park.

After successfully defeating the proposal in a citywide election, the Lakeshore Development Committee, which included Orrin Lee, first president of North Idaho College, former Senator Art Manley and County Surveyor Ray Kindler, got a permit from the city to plant an eight-foot tree. Probably unspoken in the request was the real motive — to block the extension of Fourth Street into the waterfront area and discourage any schemes to develop Tubbs Hill.

Just as Fred McMurray returned safe and sound from the Vietnam War, Fourth Street was never extended past the Freedom Tree. Tubbs Hill has been saved from Tony Tubbs’ scheme to subdivide it, and no condominium has been built on the crest of the scenic hillside.

The tree has successfully reached its main goals and can now go in peace.

A few years ago, at a meeting of the Committee of Nine, one of several groups assembled over time to advise on plans for the waterfront area, a proposal to remove the tree was on the agenda. Scott Reed remembers saying out loud, “That tree will go over my dead body.” Scott has been busily eating his words, after being wowed by the plans for the new McEuen Park.

Just as Fred McMurray attests, the sadness that is felt in seeing this trusty tree go is completely overshadowed by anticipation of a beautiful park that will have space for many memory-making times for thousands of local children and adults. 

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