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Some cherry trees gave their lives for Jefferson Memorial

Scenes from 2010¿s Cherry Blossom Festival, an annual rite of spring in Washington.

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SOURCE: | The Washington Post - March 28, 2010
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010

Franklin D. Roosevelt was mad.

This whole problem with the cherry blossoms was nothing but a "flimflam" cooked up by the newspapers to boost advertising, the president told the White House reporters.

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"Six hundred trees" doomed, he mocked, reading from some headlines. "Public aroused," he quoted, "Ten Million-Dollar Project." It was baloney. As for those women chained to the trees down by the Tidal Basin . . . they would be carted off along with their trees.

Harsh words from FDR. But this was the great "Cherry Tree Rebellion," as one newspaper called it -- one of the strangest and most passionate chapters in the now-almost 100-year history of the cherry blossoms in Washington.

It peaked in 1937 and 1938 and pitted advocates of the planned Jefferson Memorial -- whose construction would claim some cherry trees -- and an army of civic activists bent on protecting Washington's famed blossoms.

Along the way, it dragged in the president of the United States, several of the city's newspapers, the legendary editor Eleanor "Cissy" Patterson and so-called dowagers, who at one point stormed the Tidal Basin and briefly chained themselves to the hallowed trees.

It saw protesters gather outside the White House to sing a musical version of Joyce Kilmer's poem "Trees." And it generated poetry of its own:

Who is it wants these grand old trees displaced?

Who is it wants our fair DC disgraced?

From the distance of 70 years, odes to the blossoms and the image of women in furs carrying chains to the Tidal Basin seem quaint. But the dispute became angry at times and tapped into the city's deep-seated grievance over lack of self-government.

* * *

The cherry blossoms had been in Washington only for 25 years -- a gift from the city of Tokyo in 1912. But their beauty was stunning. Each spring, they drew tens of thousands of visitors. And they already were considered among the jewels of the city.

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