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Waterloo, A Place to Remember: The Birthplace of Memorial Day

“When you can personally connect yourself to history, then it becomes your history and thus more interesting and important to you,” says Town of Fayette Historian and Waterloo’s National Memorial Day Museum docent Blaine Elkie. The Village of Waterloo, New York bears the distinct title “Birthplace of Memorial Day” and honors veterans and fallen soldiers for the 148th time this year, an annual tradition which was the brainchild of local pharmacist, Henry Carter Welles. Though Mr. Welles himself never fought in the Civil War, he was an integral part of a group of local businessmen who raised funds to support the Union troops, helping them purchase items like clothing, food and banners for their local military companies. On a tour of the National Memorial Day Museum, Mr. Elkie describes the homecoming reception that greeted returning Civil War soldiers.  Mr. Welles, upon observing the picnics, banners and parades found himself wondering, “What about those who didn’t come home? Shouldn’t there be a day to remember them as well?” Unsure of how to put his idea into action, Mr. Welles didn’t move forward with plans until he met General John Murray.  Gen. Murray had both the contacts and the organizational skills necessary to plan the first community-wide observance of Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day), held in Waterloo, NY on May 5, 1866. Remarkably similar to today’s Memorial Day commemorations, Mr. Elkie observes, the event centered on a parade, with banners and flags draped across buildings, and the laying of wreaths on fallen soldiers’ graves. Afterward, a community picnic featured speeches by veterans, politicians and ministers. Mr. Elkie shares an interesting piece of trivia: that two years later the day of remembrance was changed from May 5 to May 30 because flowers were such a key component of the commemorations and a later date ensured that they would be in bloom, even in the most northern U.S. states. Sadly, Mr. Wells never received credit during his lifetime for his part in founding Memorial Day; he passed away in 1868. In 1868, General John Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the strongest and largest veterans organization between the Civil War and WWI, issued Order #11 to all veteran’s and GAR groups changing Decoration Day’s name to Memorial Day, adjusting the annual date of commemoration from May 5 to May 30. All veterans were encouraged to get involved in planning a commemorative community event. To support this effort and to make the nationwide ceremonies more uniform, Mr. Elkie informs us that GAR also printed a handbook with suggested public exercises, dedications and speeches for organizers to use at the cemeteries and other locations.
National Memorial Day Museum-3-2014 001 Docent Blaine Elkie stands before a GAR uniform at the National Memorial Day Museum. Photo: Sue Henninger.
A glass case Mr. Elkie proudly points to he tells us contains “proof of our bragging rights.”  In 1966 (the Centennial of Waterloo’s Memorial Day), a group of village historians began to search for historical documentation and pictures that would prove Memorial Day began in Waterloo. They collected enough information to send a packet to Albany. In March 1966, Governor Nelson Rockefeller officially proclaimed Waterloo the Birthplace of Memorial Day. Upon receiving a similar historical packet from Congressman Sam Stratton, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed an Executive Proclamation that same year making Waterloo the Birthplace of Memorial Day. To Mr. Elkie, the most important items on display in the museum are the 1966 concurrent resolutions, signed by both Senate and Congress, officially recognizing Waterloo as the only community to acknowledge the same day as a community for 100 consecutive years. In 1971 President Richard Nixon made Memorial Day an officially recognized holiday. Congress subsequently changed its observation date to Monday to make a three-day weekend. That’s when it became a commercial holiday instead of what it was originally intended to be, Mr. Elkie informs us regretfully. A historical stop worth making in Waterloo is at the American Civil War Memorial on Locust Street. Designed by New Jersey sculptor Pietro del Fabro, the piece was completed in 2007, with the help of townspeople, visitors and re-enactors. The Memorial honors the fallen of the first Memorial Day and was dedicated on September 20, 2008. Fifteen years ago, Waterloo’s long-standing Memorial Day observation was joined by a Memorial Day weekend event, Celebrate Commemorate. Dave Duprey, who co-chairs the Celebrate Commemorate committee, sets the scene: “It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting,” he tells us. “All is fresh and clean, red, white and blue banners and flags are flying everywhere and there’s a feeling of excitement and anticipation in the air.”  “Our celebration has become a vacation destination,” Mr. Duprey assures us, adding that the village overflows with local residents and visitors from all over the country wanting to pay homage to veterans, as well as to enjoy the weekend marking the beginning of summer in the Finger Lakes region.  If you don’t believe him, take a look at the prominently displayed map in the village where tourists can put a colored pin on their hometown. Mr. Duprey waxes enthusiastic about the volunteer committee (composed of approximately 40-50 regular members and numerous subcommittees) he works with to organize the celebratory component of Memorial Day in Waterloo. “It’s the best committee I’ve ever served on. It’s remarkable how people come together.” He attributes the committee’s success to several factors: the broad skill sets of the volunteers, the willingness to delegate, and what he calls a “passion in their hearts for this holiday.” It’s amazing how things fall into place each year Mr. Duprey says, noting that the committee members were once interviewed by a college student majoring in events management who told them they were doing everything wrong. “But here we are fifteen years later,” he tells us with a laugh. Not only does the weekend offer something for everyone, it’s also extremely affordable. Many activities are free; others, like Friday’s Civil War Candlelight tour, have a minimal charge. Saturday’s hour-long parade, which journeys down Main Street, ending up at Lafayette Park, is a mix of patriotism and pleasure, says Mr. Duprey. Anyone who wants to build a float is welcome to join. You’ll find musical entertainment too, ranging from country to rock to orchestral; Mr. Duprey’s personal favorite is Rochester’s The Hit Men brass band. He’s also fond of the car show, Wheels on Main Street, where around 400 antique cars converge. For those who are fitness-oriented, the certified 5K race (with a professional timer and photos of runners crossing the finish line) winds through Waterloo’s picturesque streets. Famous historical individuals and reenactment groups abound at Celebrate Commemorate. Our 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, depicted by actor Richard “Fritz” Klein of Springfield, Ill., gives several speeches throughout the weekend. “Mr. Lincoln” often appears with Teddy Roosevelt, portrayed by Gib Young. As an interesting aside, when the two first met, Mr. Klein was so impressed by Mr. Young’s representation of the Rough Rider that he convinced Mr. Young to become a professional presidential interpreter like himself. Though Mr. Duprey thoroughly enjoys the celebratory elements of Memorial Day (often from the seat of his golf cart), he tells us that the Celebrate Commemorate memory that made the biggest impression on him was the Healing Field in 2006. He still recalls getting chills when he saw the 1,500 American flags lined up in rows, each meant to honor someone who was meaningful to the donor.  Every day of the display there was a special presentation, including a reading of the names on each of the flags. “It was an indescribable feeling to be there,” he says with emotion. “It was a one-time deal; we could never duplicate it again.” The Patriot Guard Riders of New York (PGRNY) are also a major presence throughout the weekend. Mr. Duprey tells us the motorcyclists voluntarily dismount from their bikes to transport veterans from the Canandaigua Veterans Administration Hospital and push them in their wheelchairs as part of Saturday’s parade. This is extremely meaningful to both the veterans and to the spectators, who give VA patients, along with other marching veterans, a huge round of applause as they pass. Memorial Day Monday is also host to another popular PGRNY event, the biker rally "Ride for Respect," an annual tribute to our troops that invites all motorcyclists to ride around the Finger Lakes (Keuka Lake in 2014) with the PGRNY to show support for those who served (and still serve) to protect our freedoms. The commemorative Memorial Day is always acknowledged by veterans groups with a parade and ceremonies on May 30, regardless of what day of the week the federal Memorial Day Holiday falls. On that day, a flag pole in the oldest section of Maple Grove, Waterloo’s main cemetery, is laid with a wreath. Mr. Duprey tells us that there was initially some resistance from veteran’s organizations who were concerned that having a weekend festival to celebrate Memorial Day might detract from the true meaning of the holiday. But Mr. Duprey emphasizes that the two events aren’t at cross purposes. “We celebrate the many freedoms that our veterans have given us and we commemorate those who served for us,” he elaborates, adding that the two are distinctly different, but complementary, events. “Without our vets, where would we all be?” he asks.