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Doug's Diggings: A look back at Memorial Day

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opinion River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

The Memorial Day celebration this weekend got me wondering about the history of the event itself. I remember attending ceremonies for most of my life, but I wondered when things got started.

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I remember my grandparents talking about Decoration Day, while my parents called it Memorial Day. As it turns out, the observance was known as Decoration Day for many years.

As a youngster, Memorial Day essentially meant the end of school. As I began to get a little older, however, I realized there was something special about the day. My parents and grandparents made it known before my teenage years that this was a special day.

I did some checking in the Star-Observer files and found that in Hudson, the Decoration Day to Memorial Day name change - at least locally -- occurred in 1926. In 1925 the Star-Observer called the observance Decoration Day; in 1926 the newspaper called it Memorial Day. The bottom line, the community has been observing the event for a long, long time.

I decided to take a look at the Memorial Day observance in 1966, the year I graduated from Hudson high School.

The events were, like today, sponsored by the American Legion and VFW. The committee in charge of the ceremony included Willis Kramer, Gerald Schlief and Robert W. Penman.

The day actually began with a parade starting at Rock Elementary School and marching to Willow River Cemetery. The parade included the color guard, honor guard, all men and women in uniform, Hudson High School Band, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts.

The speaker in 1966 was Roger Gratiot, a veteran and journalist. Some of those involved in the ceremony included Norman E. Anderson, commander of the American Legion Post.

Just for the fun of it, I looked back at the Star-Observer from May 25, 1950 and discovered that Memorial Day was celebrated Tuesday, May 30 (originally, Memorial Day was May 30, regardless of the day of the week). The 1950 observance still included a parade, this one starting at the high school of Fourth Street (now Willow River Elementary). One sentence read: All Hudson stores, business houses and offices will be closed on Tuesday, a legal holiday. Of course, many stores still close for Memorial Day, but many also stay open. The speaker in 1950 was a female, Mrs. Arthur Lilley - probably pretty unique for the day.

Nationally, there seems to be many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day because it was a time set aside to honor the nation's Civil War dead by decorating their graves.

The day was first widely observed on May 30, 1868, to honor the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, by proclamation of Gen. John A. Logan who belonged to an organization of former sailors and soldiers.

On May 5, 1868, Logan declared in General Order No. 11 that: The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

During the first celebration of Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery. After the ceremony, 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.

For some reason, Waterloo New York was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966. Obviously most communities were observing the event long before 1966.

The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war).

Memorial Day is now celebrated almost everywhere on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays).

Still, however, several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis' birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.

Part of Memorial Day is the wearing of the red poppies. The idea was born in 1915 when Moina Michael conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war.

She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans' organization to nationally sell poppies. Two years later their "Buddy" Poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans.

Unfortunately, many Americans nowadays have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day. We are fortunate in Hudson that many of the Memorial traditions continue on. Congratulations to the American Legion Otis H. King Post 50 and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hudson memorial Post 2115. These two groups carry the ball every year and plan the Memorial Day observances in the Hudson area.

Try to take some time out of your schedule Monday to attend the ceremony at Willow River Cemetery. It's the sacrifices of our veterans that allow all of us to enjoy the freedoms and great lifestyle that we enjoy.

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