Boalsburg, PA- Birthplace of MEMORIAL DAY

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Boalsburg, PA- Birthplace of Memorial Day

Boalsburg is a quaint little village situated in Centre County, Pennsylvania, just off Route 322, in the picturesque foothills of the Alleghenies. It’s only a dot on the map, and you as a casual driver might drive past it without even being aware that it is nestled there in the rolling valley beneath a coverlet of oaks and pines and cedars – were it not for a plain little marker by the side of the road: "Boalsburg. An American Village – Birthplace of Memorial Day."

What about that boast?

It happened in October, 1864. It was a pleasant Sunday and in the little community burial ground behind the village the pioneers of colonial times slept peacefully side by side with the recently fallen heroes of the Civil War.

It was this day that a pretty, young teen-age girl, Emma Hunter by name, and her friend, Sophie Keller, chose to gather some garden flowers and to place them on the grave of her father, Dr. Reuben Hunter, a surgeon in the Union Army, who died only a short while before. And it was this very same day than an older woman, a Mrs. Elizabeth Meyer, elected to strew flowers on the grave of her son Amos, who as a private in the ranks, had fallen on the last day of Battle at Gettysburg.

And so the two with their friend met, kneeling figures at nearby graves, a young girl honoring her officer father, a young mother paying respects to her enlisted-man son, each with a basket of flowers which she had picked with loving hands. And they got to talking. The mother proudly told the girl what a fine young man her son had been, how he had dropped his farm duties and enlisted in the Union Army at the outbreak of the war, and how bravely he had fought.

The daughter respectfully took a few of her flowers as a token and placed them on the son’s grave. The mother in turn laid some of her freshly cut blooms on the father’s grave. These two women had found in their common grief a common bond as they knelt together in that little burial ground in Central Pennsylvania where Mount Nittany stands eternal guard over those who sleep there. Nor did they realize at the same time that their meeting had any particular significance – outside of their own personal lives; it was just that they seemed to lighten their burdens by sharing them. But as it happened these two women were participating in their first Memorial Day Service.

For the story goes that before the two women left each other that Sunday in October, 1864, they had agreed to meet again on the same day the following year in order to honor not only their own two loved ones, but others who now might have no one left to kneel at their lonely graves. During the weeks and months that followed the two women discussed their little plan with friends and neighbors and all heard it with enthusiasm. The report was that on July 4, 1865 – the appointed day – what had been planned as a little informal meeting of two women turned into a community service. All Boalsburg was gathered there, a clergymen – Dr. George Hall – preached a sermon, and every grave in the little cemetery was decorated with flowers and flags; not a single one was neglected.

It must have been an impressive ceremony that took place that day in this peaceful mountain-rimmed valley where not so long before the red men had held their councils. It must have been such a scene as this that inspired Longfellow to write:
        Your silent tents of green
        We deck with flagrant flowers:
        Yours has the suffering been,
        The memory shall be hours.

It seemed such a fitting and proper way of remembering those who had passed on that the custom became an annual event in Boalsburg, and one by one the neighboring communities adopted a similar plan of observing "Decoration Day" each spring. On May 5, 1868, just four years after that first meeting in the little burial ground, Gen. John A. Logan, then commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order, naming May 30, 1868, as a day "for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country." He signed the order "with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year." And so it has.

Ceremonies at first were held to honor only those who had served the Union cause in the Civil War, later the program was broadened to embrace the men who faught in gray as well as in blue, finally to include all heroes who have made the supreme sacrifice in all American conflicts from the Revolutionary War to World War II. Which, of course, is as it should be if Holmes’ immortal words are not to become an empty, meaningless phrase– "One flag, one land, one heart, one hand, one nation evermore."

As a matter of fact, Memorial Day – and it should be noted that in 1882 the GAR urged that "proper designation of May 30 in Memorial Day" – not Decoration Day – is now observed by most people as a day when we pay respect to all who have died, in war or in peace, as soldiers or as civilians. To a very large extent Memorial Day has lost its pure military significance and in a broader sense has become the one day in the year when all of us pause in respectful tribute to those who have walked these paths before.

Of course, some people will tell you that this custom of honoring the dead originated in the South. And in a way this is true. Many southern women did strew flowers on the graves of their fallen heroes – no doubt many northern women did too – and several of the Southern states still observe their own dates.

But all this does not necessarily conflict with the story told by the people in Boalsburg, and does not weaken the claim which they so proudly make. This writer now has no way of verifying the facts; I cannot state with certainty that there was any connection between the order issued by General Logan in 1868 and the events in the Boalsburg cemetery that day in 1864; I know only what the people tell me. But somehow I like to believe – and I do believe – that Memorial Day, as we know it and observe it generally today, was born in that tiny Pennsylvania graveyard on the outskirts of "An American Village," when a proud mother and a grieving daughter met to scatter flowers over the final resting places of a brave son and a gallant father.

The above is an excerpt of an article which was written by Herbert G. Moore for the National Republic Magazine in May 1948 and which then Congressman James Van Zandt, representing his Centre County constituents, had reprinted in the Congressional Record of May 19, 1948.

NOTE: Twenty-four (24) communities nationwide lay claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. In May 1966, Pres. Lyndon Johnson on behalf of the U.S. government sanctioned Waterloo, New York, as the "official" birthplace of Memorial Day because that community’s earliest observance 100 years earlier in 1866 was considered so well planned and complete. Among the earliest communities which felt inspired to set aside a special day for remembrance of its war dead were Mobile, Ala.; Montgomery, Ala.; Camden, Ark.; Atlanta, Ga.; Milledgeville, Ga.; New Orleans, La.; Columbus, Miss.; Jackson, Miss.; Vicksburg, Miss.; Raleigh, N.C.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Charleston, S.C.; Fredericksburg, Va; Portsmouth, Va.; Warrenton, Va.; and, Washington, D.C.

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