Memorial Day Originated In New York State Village
Odds are not many people know that the national holiday we just observed got its start not far from here in the upstate New York community of Waterloo.
As the story goes, it was in the summer of 1865 when prominent Waterloo druggist, Henry C. Welles, mentioned to friends at a social gathering that along with praising the living Civil War veterans, those who lost their lives should also be honored by placing flowers on their graves. Nothing resulted from this suggestion until Welles mentioned it again the following spring to General John B. Murray. Murray, a Civil War hero, supported the idea wholeheartedly and marshaled veterans' support.
Over the next few months plans were developed and on May 5, 1866, the village was decorated with flags at half-mast, draped with evergreens and black crepe. Veterans, civic societies and residents, led by General Murray, marched to the strains of a marching band to the three village cemeteries where memorial services were held and soldiers' graves decorated. One year later, on May 5, 1867, the ceremonies were repeated. And in 1868, Waterloo joined with other communities in holding their observance on May 30th. It has been held annually ever since.
On March 7, 1966, the State of New York recognized Waterloo as the birthplace of Memorial Day in a proclamation signed by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller. This was followed by recognition from the Congress of the United States when the House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously passed a resolution that officially recognized Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day. And on May 26, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a Presidential Proclamation recognizing Waterloo as the Birthplace of Memorial Day.
Visit Waterloo today over Memorial Day weekend and you’ll quickly see that the community where Memorial Day began continues to mark the holiday in a big way.
There’s a colorful parade, virtually the entire community is decked out in red, white and blue bunting, and there’s a long list of events that range from an antique car show and 5K footrace, to an arts and crafts show, biker rally, pizza eating contest and more.
But don’t think just because Waterloo has lots of Memorial Day fun and games that they’ve lost sight of what the day is really all about. This year’s observance of Memorial Day offered an opportunity for the public to meet the 41 World War II veterans who currently live in Waterloo. This impressive group of veterans were eyewitnesses to some of the most crucial moments in American history. One flew 42 missions as the top turret gunner in a B26 bomber. Another was rescued at sea along with 600 of his shipmates after his ship was bombed and quickly sank. And then there was the Marine who watched as his comrades raised the American flag over Iwo Jima.
The invitation sent to these veterans asking them to take part in Waterloo’s Memorial Day service sums up the spirit of Memorial Day perfectly:
This is being held in your honor and it is to thank you for your service to our country. Many times we take our freedoms for granted. We remain free because of the sacrifices our soldiers have made. You were one of those soldiers. Thank you from all of us. Enjoy your day. You fought hard for us and we all appreciate it!”
So the community where Memorial Day began still marks the holiday with the patriotism, dignity and respect that Henry C. Welles envisioned 145 years ago.