By DANIEL VICTOR
The Lion’s Roar
Jim Dearing, Chebie Bateman and Lee Patchen know with unwavering certainty that they live in the town where Memorial Day began.
But they live in three different towns.
“As far as I’m concerned and the people of Boalsburg are concerned, it did start here,” said Dearing, of Boalsburg, Pa.
“As the old saying goes, a dog doesn’t bark for its own backyard,” said Bateman, of Columbus, Miss., but “I feel that we are the first.”
“We don’t consider it a dispute,” said Patchen, mayor of Waterloo, N.Y. “We are the birthplace of Memorial Day.”
Boalsburg, Columbus and Waterloo are among at least 22 communities that stake a claim to the national holiday’s origins. Most of these claims are traced to decorating graves of Civil War casualties.
Those small tributes have grown into a nationwide commemoration of all war dead, observed on the last Monday of May and sometimes called Decoration Day. Historians can’t agree on when, where or how the tradition began. Some believe it evolved from multiple spontaneous events, like streams coming together to form a river.
But townspeople in each of the competing towns hold steadfastly to their claims of distinction and cast a skeptical eye at their rivals.
They all think the label of “The Birthplace of Memorial Day” brings their community a sense of togetherness they would not otherwise enjoy.
“Claiming we’re the home of Memorial Day is just one more thing that binds us together,” Columbus Mayor Jeffrey Rupp said. “Psychologically, it’s important. It makes us feel better as a community. That’s one more thing that’s ours.”
Three small towns, three different states, three similar but contradictory stories. Their claims feed them tourism dollars, but the people in each place consider economic benefits secondary.
What’s more important to them, they say: Pride.
Every little town wants to be known for something.
Boalsburg, Pa.: ‘We don’t care if we got the credit’
Just off U.S. 322 Business Route in rural Central Pennsylvania, a bronze statue of three women in front of a grave is illuminated 24 hours a day. John Dearing, who raised $150,000 over eight years to erect the statue, brags that it’s one of only two monuments in the state dedicated to a national holiday. The other is the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.
This small town, otherwise known for its connection to Christopher Columbus’ family and a small ski resort on nearby Tussey Mountain, pulsates every Memorial Day. Thousands of visitors come for the arts and crafts, live music and carnival in the fire station parking lot. Most vendors are locals, and the day is a boon for downtown novelty shops.
At 6 p.m., the carnival shuts down as the townspeople march from the town square to the graveyard, where in 1864 three women started a tradition of decorating the graves of the fallen Civil War soldiers from the 148th Division. In front of a statue of those women, residents give speeches while Girl Scouts place flowers on graves.
Margaret Tennis, a Boalsburg resident for 52 years, said it’s “the best day of the year around here.” She remembers she once had a Boalsburg friend whose mother would never buy her a new dress for Easter but always would for Memorial Day.
Though the Boalsburg residents are proud of their claim, printed on a sign alongside Rte. 322 near the entrance to downtown, the documentation to back it up is sketchy. There are no known newspaper accounts of the women’s gathering in 1864. The claim is based mostly on piecing together letters, diaries and regimental history.
That lack of evidence has prevented Boalsburg from receiving national recognition, even though theirs predates all other claims.
Anne Riley, lifelong Boalsburg resident and former teacher, said the village focuses on the original gesture itself, rather than worrying about documentation.
“We really don’t care if we got the credit elsewhere,” she said. “It’s what we know from what we’ve been told, handed down from generation to generation.”
Tennis, who owns a lamp shop in the basement of her home, said the lack of documentation doesn’t dampen her beliefs.
“If you grow up with this, it just becomes part of you,” she said.
Columbus, Miss.: Alike for the friend and the foe
Nearly a thousand miles southwest of Boalsburg, Columbus, Miss., is a similar everyone-knows-everyone community. Diagonal parking is readily available on Main Street, the largest buildings in town are churches, and the local newspaper features a daily proverb on the front page. The wealthy live in antebellum mansions, some with slave quarters still intact.
The Civil War can be a touchy subject here, said Benjamin Peterson, an archivist at the Columbus and Lowndes County Library. In Columbus, that war is sometimes referred to as “The War of Northern Aggression,” he said.
So when three Columbus women decorated the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers in 1866, it was seen as an unprecedented gesture. News of it reached the New York Tribune, where poet Francis Miles Finch read the story and used it as inspiration for the famous “The Blue and the Gray” poem, first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1867.
The women’s act was well-documented, and the Library of Congress recognized Columbus as the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1958. That’s the basis of residents’ claim that their town is the “official” birthplace of Memorial Day.
But the town has no formal celebration on the national Memorial Day, choosing instead to have an event on the anniversary of its original celebration, April 25. Aside from a small marker at the cemetery, there are no signs chronicling the town’s claim to fame.
Jim Terry, a county supervisor, is trying to change that. He doesn’t think Columbus plays up its honor enough.
He organized a committee of about a dozen residents to erect a monument, which they hope will be displayed either at the visitor’s center or at the graveyard.
“I want Columbus to go all out,” Terry said. “I’d like that to be our hallmark. This is the thing that’s going to put us on our rightful place on the map.
“We are the first, and I want that to be known. I want that to be public record.”
Not everybody is conscious of or excited about the town’s claim. One Victory High School student, Heather Cummings, said she had never heard of it. Josh Williams, a graduate of Columbus High School, said he knew about it but never cared.
Those who do know Columbus’ history have never doubted it. Mike Lowery, who works at Wal-Mart and calls himself a history buff, said he’s never had a reason to question that Columbus is the birthplace.
“The only place I’d ever heard of was this place,” he said. “I would still rather believe it’s the first. That’s the way it’s been known for many years.”
Waterloo, N.Y.: Officially proud
Ten minutes from the fingertip of Seneca Lake in upstate New York, Waterloo is perpetually cloaked in red, white and blue. The town holds the Guinness World Record for most American flags displayed in a town at one time – 25,898 of them during Memorial Day weekend in 2000. If any townspeople noticed a house without a flag on it, Mayor Patchen said, someone would put one up by the next day.
On a typical fall afternoon, most houses along Main Street still fly their flags. It’s hard to miss the “Birthplace of Memorial Day” welcome signs posted at all four entrances into town.
A house on Main Street has been turned into the Memorial Day Museum. Among the featured collectibles: A proclamation from 1966 signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson officially declaring Waterloo the birthplace of Memorial Day.
Getting that declaration, making Waterloo the most widely known claim of the bunch, was in large part due to the research of Dick Schreck and John Genung. Two lifelong Waterloo residents, they decided to aim for national recognition as part of the town’s centennial celebration of the first ceremony.
For a year, they researched every town in the nation that claimed to be the birthplace, deconstructing each argument.
“When I was research chairman, one of the committee members said, ‘Why are we researching what somebody else did? We just want to know what we did,’” Schreck said. “I said, ‘No, we’ve got to know what they all did to see if we can prove that we are the birthplace of Memorial Day.’”
First the town won state recognition, and quickly thereafter the resolution was passed by the U.S. Congress.
That added extra meaning to the 1966 commemoration, he said. Though a new committee, known as Celebration and Commemoration, has spiced up the days leading to the Memorial Day event, the day itself remains a solemn affair – the way it should be, he said.
Marsha Porter, a waitress in Connie’s Diner in Waterloo, said as she was putting cream on tables that business is always good during Memorial Day weekend. It’s not an everyday topic of conversation, she said, but upon reflection she can find the worth in the claim.
“It makes it seem like Waterloo isn’t just another little town,” she said.
Jockeying for first
Waterloo’s official designation from Congress was a major victory, drawing envy from its rivals.
That doesn’t mean the other towns backed off.
“Apparently they had a better politician than we did,” Boalsburg’s Dearing said. “If we had a politician at the time in 1966 who would have fought in Congress for the claiming rights, I think it would have been here.”
“I don’t think that really bothers us around here,” Columbus’ Peterson said. “I think we’ll still claim to be the first Memorial Day until kingdom come.”
The proclamation did, however, give the people of Waterloo reason to call themselves the “official” birthplace. Many Waterloo residents have read a small book written by Schreck and Genung that outlines their case, though it doesn’t mention any other towns by name.
The children in the area are taught about Waterloo’s story at a young age. Jim Hughes, director of the Memorial Day Museum, said second-graders come for a tour every year.
“We feel that we are, we know that we are, and it doesn’t matter what people say,” Waterloo’s Mayor Patchen said. “That’s their prerogative. If they want to claim, that’s fine. But we are.”
Although Schreck’s research allows him to point to the perceived flaws in other towns’ arguments, he wants no part of any mud-throwing.
“It’s never been our policy to say that despite everything you did, we are the owners of being the birthplace of Memorial Day,” he said. “No. If I belonged to those communities, I would be staunchly supporting them, too. And I would be proud of anything that we did in those communities, and I know those people are proud of what they’ve done.
“We should really be clasping hands. If you did anything to honor these people, you’re top-notch with me.”
Although Dearing admitted to wanting to throw a slipper at his TV once when he saw a news report from Waterloo, he feels similarly nonconfrontational.
“They can claim whatever they want,” he said. “If they want to see the true birthplace, they can come here.”
Terry, a former preacher and longtime politician in Columbus, said it irks him when he hears of other towns’ claims.
“There’s a certain personal angst because I’m certain to the contrary,” he said. “I think we have more than a valid, substantial claim.”
But Rupp, approaching the end of his first term as Columbus’ mayor, said he has no problem with other claims. He believes that Columbus was first, but it’s not a battle he chooses to fight.
“I don’t know how much time and energy it’s worth,” he said. “It might be best to just let folks have that sense of pride wherever they are.”
So, who’s right?
William Blair, director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State and author of “Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South,” isn’t sure anyone is.
He said he is pleased that people are remembering the Civil War and thinks each of the communities is acting nobly in its celebration. But it’s impossible to pinpoint a single location as the one-and-only birthplace, he said.
“I’d be willing to bet that there were communities galore in which women especially, probably as early as there were bodies for this war, were decorating graves of soldiers,” he said. “So to claim the battle of the first, I just think it’s a specious claim. It doesn’t get us very far.”
An undated Columbus Chamber of Commerce document notes that “Columbus does not claim to have originated the idea of merely placing flowers on soldiers’ graves – a custom that is as old as Time itself – but it does claim that this is the first community where a planned program of exercises was held which resulted in the placing of flowers on the graves of both Northern and Southern soldiers.”
Trudy Gildea, 75, who lives in the Twelve Gables mansion where the three women in Columbus met to start their tradition, is proud of her town’s heritage but isn’t sold on its uniqueness.
She compared the origins of the holiday to technological inventions, which, she said, often occur to several different people at the same time.
“I’m proud that Columbus was certainly among the first, and I believe it could have been first, but to me it isn’t important at all who was first,” she said. “The important thing is that they did it, that they actually created the kind of atmosphere where people could look back on the losses in the war.”
Reading from notes he had scribbled, Waterloo’s Schreck made his case: “We had the first formal, complete, well-planned, village-wide, continuous, annual celebration of a day entirely dedicated to the war dead.”
After his research into the origins, he decided that three women decorating graves does not constitute the beginning of a holiday.
“Balderdash,” said Boalsburg’s Dearing, in response to the idea that three women’s decorations were insignificant.
“To me most births are very small. The birth of Albert Einstein was an insignificant event. The birth of George Washington was an insignificant event. But it’s what it becomes later on that makes it a significant event.”
‘A wonderful thing’
Schreck said Waterloo hit its climax with its 1966 commemoration, when its claim had just been officially sanctioned by Congress. He was told that President Johnson asked who was responsible for the proclamation, and Schreck was given credit.
For his name to be spoken by the president, Schreck said, was a life-altering honor.
That May, he recalled from his office inside his Waterloo home, the town gathered together passionately and proudly.
“I had never seen the village of Waterloo look so tall,” he said, his voice gradually rising as he spoke. “Every lawn was manicured, every hedge was trimmed, every house in Waterloo had a flag. There was a buoyancy in Waterloo of the population that I had never seen before.
“It was remarkable,” he continued, now speaking more excitedly.
“This village just shone. And it was glorious! It really was, and you could feel the energy and the joyousness!
“We are the birthplace of Memorial Day!” He pumped both fists, rising to the edge of his chair. “We’ve been designated!”
He paused, sat back down deeper. Collecting himself, he continued, slowly and calmly.
“What a wonderful thing,” he said.
“I was never so proud of this village.”
(Figures from 2000, courtesy of city-data.com)
Median resident age: 37.5 years
Median household income: $55,273
Date of claim: October 1864
The story: Three women – Emma Hunter, Sophie Keller and Elizabeth Klein – while decorating the graves of loved ones spontaneously decided to also decorate other graves of the war dead.
Main Distinction: Two years before any other claims, though it is not officially documented.
Official Recognition: State of Pennsylvania
Median resident age: 33.8 years
Median household income: $27,393
Date of claim: April 25, 1866
The story: Three women – Matt Moreton, J.T. Fontaine and Green T. Hill – decorated the graves of loved ones, then chose to also honor the Union soldiers who died in the Battle of Shiloh.
Main Distinction: First known commemoration of both Union and Confederate soldiers.
Official Recognition: Library of Congress
Median resident age: 39.1 years
Median household income: $33,089
Date of claim: May 5, 1866
The story: Henry G. Welles formed the idea for a village-wide, day-long commemoration of the war dead. Residents decorated graves, lowered flags to half-mast and listened to speeches.
Main Distinction: First commemoration to include the entire community. Townspeople claim Gen. John A. Logan’s 1868 national decree, the official beginning of Memorial Day, was based on Waterloo’s celebration.
Official Recognition: U.S. Congress
TOWNS THAT LAY A CLAIM:
New Orleans, La.
(Source: Historian Ernest J. Klein in a 1967 Memorial Day Address in Huntington, Ind.)