Mingo Junction’s Cherry Blossom Memorial Park leaving lasting legacy

Photo by Christopher Dacanay Members of the Mingo Business Association stood Tuesday in the village’s Cherry Blossom Memorial Park, which they helped to create. From left are Bob Smith, Kathy Freiling and Jim Freiling.

MINGO JUNCTION — Spend any amount of time in Mingo Junction’s Cherry Blossom Memorial Park during the spring, and you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported to another place.

The uniquely tranquil park sits on the former Central School building site and its east bank along St. Clair Avenue, overlooking Commercial Street.

Twenty-seven trees dot the largely sloping park, which is abuzz with bumblebees and butterflies.

Each spring, those trees blossom together, turning the park into a magnificent sightseeing destination in the small steel town.

Tracing their roots back to 2007, the trees — and the park itself — have an origin story defined by the love individuals have for their community and their desire to honor those who’ve helped it grow.

The park is the brainchild of the Mingo Business Association, a nonprofit aimed at developing initiatives to improve the village, including murals, historical markers, events, scholarships and more.

By 2007, the association had held one previous event, a packed dinner honoring village native and professional football player Joe Fortunato. However, the association sought to create a tourist attraction, “something to attract people to Mingo,” recalled Jim Freiling, then-vice president of the association.

Members of the association, at that time including President Bob Smith and Secretary-Treasurer Kathy Freiling, hatched an idea to recognize the 100-year educational legacy of Mingo schools, Jim Freiling said, noting that Mingo High School had been in operation from 1893 to 1993.

Located on the former Central School building site, a park would be created to honor Mingo High School educators, with a memorial wall at the slope’s base, near the former amphitheater. Additionally, a tree would be planted in the park for each educator who was honored.

Smith said the park idea quickly increased in popularity, necessitating an expansion. Not only teachers would be recognized but staff as well — custodians, cooks, clinicians, school bus drivers, to name a few — and staff from other schools that fed into Mingo High School would also be eligible for recognition: Harmony, Hills, St. Agnes and Mingo Central.

It soon became clear that if the association planted a tree for every individual, “we would’ve had to have another two acres here,” Smith said, adding that the association limited the number of trees, understanding that they represent each staff member together.

Eighty total Hills Elementary School students planted the 27 trees during the course of two days — 11 trees on Oct. 20 and 16 on Nov. 21, 2007. Adult volunteers paved the way by digging the holes by hand so the children could place the trees in the ground themselves and mulch them, Freiling said.

The memorial wall also took shape, with 150 spots created for names, photos and years of service. School staff could and can still be honored on the wall through a $100 donation to the association and a sponsorship from another individual. Currently, 99 spots have been filled using black granite plaques.

Freiling said generous donations made the park possible. Led by adviser Karen Edwards, Hills Elementary’s Student Senate donated the trees and fencing that sits along the park’s lower edge. Local Drs. John Figel and William Johns also contributed toward the park.

Most notably, then-U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson donated three flag poles that still stand on the park, as well as a U.S. flag that had flown over the Capitol.

Inspired by Washington, D.C.’s yearly National Cherry Blossom Festival, the association decided to create its own annual custom. Thus, from 2008 to 2019, the association hosted festivals at the park itself, honoring new wall inductees and employing the help of Hills students.

Each year, the association would erect a stage on the park and hold a program, drawn up by Kathy Freiling. Annual ceremonies included honoring those whose names were being added to the wall, Jim Freiling said, and the first ceremony drew many tears from those in attendance.

The ceremonies would see Hills’ choir sing about the cherry blossoms and a military medley. Other Hills students would read essays they had written about the cherry tree’s history in the U.S. The quality of essays once left a representative from former U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson’s office speechless after she planned to speak on the same subject, Freiling said, adding that state senators and representatives would frequently attend, along with the current congressman’s delegate.

Following the program, students from Hills would help with the upkeep of the trees, Freiling said, estimating that around 1,000 children helped with the project over the years.

The park project’s positive effect on kids was evident, Freiling said, mentioning an instance when a participant had remarked, “When I grow up, I can tell my kids I helped plant these trees and make this park.”

Although hopes existed for further park expansions, including a shelter house designed by computer-aided design students at the Jefferson County Joint Vocational School, progress and ceremonies halted after 2019, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.

“We had such a nice momentum of creating things that would bring people to Mingo,” Freiling said, maligning the pandemic.

Although the events of 2020 took the steam out of the association, Freiling said he’s hopeful that new organizers will take up the reins to continue making the village better.

Hopefully, a part of those efforts will be preserving the village’s educational history and recognizing those whose careers were dedicated to teaching future generations.

Looking out on the park and wearing a T-shirt from the original 2008 ceremony, Freiling said, “This whole park — we’re pretty proud of it. … It’s going to be here for a long, long time.”


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