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Saturday, May 25, 2024

PHALON’S FILE: The Real Memorial Day

Let’s not forget that next Tuesday is Memorial Day.

“Tuesday is Memorial Day?” you might ask. “How is that? Tuesday is when I’ll be back to work with my holiday hangover!”

The real Memorial Day is May 30th. You might notice the fine print on some calendars that says “Memorial Day (traditional)” on May 30th. Memorial Day was observed on May 30th from 1868 until 1970, when the day was snatched from its historic date and moved to a floating day that would always make it a Monday and, therefore, create three-day weekends so Americans could drink beer, have barbeques, buy discount furniture and otherwise overlook the real meaning of the day.

But there is still a place where Memorial Day is observed with tradition and reverence. Though the origins of Memorial Day have been subject to debate, Waterloo, New York, has been officially recognized as the birthplace of the American Memorial Day.

We visited Waterloo on May 30th a few years back. It’s just a couple miles west of Seneca Falls, the town believed by many to be the inspiration for Bedford Falls. Both villages share the same “It’s a Wonderful Life” atmosphere.

To be sure, Waterloo doesn’t neglect to view the end of May as the beginning of summer and celebrates that appropriately. In fact, the three-day weekend when Memorial Day is officially observed around the rest of the country is filled with festivals, pizza-eating contests, car shows and plenty of food, drink and fireworks.

Historic speeches delivered by actors portraying Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, organizer of the Seneca Falls Convention (the first women’s rights convention) in nearby Seneca Falls in 1848, highlight the weekend.

Waterloo was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, where Quaker abolitionists risked their lives to help runaway slaves, and this is also recalled and re-enacted during the weekend.

But on May 30th, this year a Tuesday, all of that is over, and residents and visitors in Waterloo observe Memorial Day in its traditional manner. No one “celebrates” on this day. Services are held in the cemeteries of Waterloo, and speakers recall the sacrifices made by the men and women of the U.S. armed forces during the past two-and-a-half centuries.

On May 30, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed a proclamation designating Waterloo as the birthplace of Memorial Day. In 1866, a local druggist named Henry C. Welles told a gathering of residents honoring veterans of the Civil War, that it was meaningful to remember the fallen by decorating their graves.

On May 5, 1867, the first “Decoration Day” was held in Waterloo. By the following year, the day was commemorated on May 30th in many nearby communities and quickly spread across the country. Today Waterloo hosts the National Memorial Day Museum on Main Street (where else) and continues to honor the fallen on the traditional day of May 30th.

Joe Phalon
Joe Phalon, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Joe was lured out of retirement by the opportunity to be a part of the Ridge View Echo. During a decades-long career in publishing and journalism, he has covered government on many levels from local school boards to the United States Supreme Court.

Along the way, Joe has worked at American Lawyer Magazine, The National Law Journal and The Record among other publications, and as the Press Officer of Columbia Law School. His work has been recognized with several first place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the New Jersey Press Association.

Being part of the Ridge View Echo brings Joe back to his roots and the kind of news coverage he loves: Telling the stories of people and local communities as well as keeping an eye on how their money is spent by their government officials.

Joe lives in Blairstown with his wife Rose, the founder of Quilting for a Cause, and their two wiener dogs. He is an artist in his spare time.