Veterans Les King and Wayne Campbell, with their respective VFW and American Legion brothers, quietly lay wreaths at the headstones of fallen soldiers at St. Mary’s and Maple Grove cemeteries in Waterloo, N.Y. (pop. 7,866). It’s a scene that has played out for 138 years in Waterloo, which proudly holds the distinction as "The Birthplace of Memorial Day."
"It’s the living coming to pay tribute to those who did not survive," says Campbell, a Waterloo resident and Vietnam War veteran, one of two dozen former soldiers who participated in the solemn early morning march and ceremony last May 30.
"Memorial Day means three things to me," says World War II veteran Ed Nelson, 80. "It is for those who gave their lives, for those who are suffering in veterans hospitals, and for those of us who took the time to go. We all made sacrifices."
The first Memorial Day
In the summer of 1865, the scars of the Civil War were fresh in the nation’s psyche and hundreds of thousands of war casualties filled cemeteries across the country. Waterloo druggist Henry C. Welles suggested to Gen. John B. Murray that honoring the war dead by placing flowers on their graves would be a fitting tribute. Murray, a Civil War hero and town clerk in the neighboring village of Seneca Falls agreed, and the two gathered supporters. On May 5, 1866, the town of Waterloo observed its first Memorial Day.
Two years later, Gen. John A. Logan, commanding general of the Grand Army of the Republic, an early veterans’ association, issued General Order 11 from his headquarters in Washington, D.C. The order, known as Logan’s Order, declared 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."
Following that dictate, despite the 1966 congressional edict that Memorial Day be observed on the last Monday in May, veterans’ groups in Waterloo have observed Memorial Day on May 30 without interruption each year since 1868.
In 1966, Congress officially recognized Waterloo as "The Birthplace of Memorial Day," a title that the town and its people bear with obvious pride. The spirit of Memorial Day permeates the town, and it is imbued in school children, who are raised with the knowledge that something very important began in their hometown.
"I was 9 when we got the designation," says resident Doug Daeffler, 47, an Air Force Reserve captain and former Coast Guard helicopter pilot. "I thought, ‘Wow! This is really cool, this is my town, and this is just great stuff.
"We have the greatest country in the world, and someone has to defend it," he adds. Daeffler married his high school sweetheart, and in 2003 left his family and his job to serve a tour in Iraq as a forward air controller. "And if not me, who?"
He’s following in the footsteps of his father, Roger, 74, who saw combat in Korea. His son, Michael, entered the Coast Guard Academy last year.
Daeffler shows his respect for his fellow veterans by marching in the town’s Memorial Day parade, something he first did as a Cub Scout, then Eagle Scout, and now as a scoutmaster of Troop 81 in Waterloo.
The proclamation, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, confirming Waterloo’s status was cause for celebration in 1966, which residents did with a community-wide festival. Celebrations were held again in 1976, 1991 and 2000, each on the federally mandated last Monday in May. However, the commercial aspect did not sit well with many veterans, who continued their own tradition of marching to veterans’ graves only on May 30.
Since 2000—the year residents draped Waterloo in nearly 26,000 American flags—the town has combined the festive and memorial aspects under the official title of Celebrate-Commemorate Weekend. The celebration is held during the weekend preceding the federally recognized holiday on Monday, with the commemorative parade and observances by the veterans on May 30.
This year, the celebration is scheduled Saturday, May 28, and Sunday, May 29. The entire town takes on a subdued festive air during the event, featuring a 10K run, train rides and colorful banners. La Fayette Park will take on a Norman Rockwell scene, filled with craftspeople, vendor’s tents, hot dogs, popcorn, live music and the sound of cannon fired by a Civil War re-enactors group that has set up its encampment there every year since 2000.
The streets will be lined with wooden cutouts of large stars, bearing the names of 4-H leaders, coaches, and literacy and Red Cross volunteers—residents who have contributed to the community. Last year, the decorative yellow stars were all over town, standing on short poles stuck in the ground. Doris Wolf, one of the volunteers who helped coordinate the "star" effort, says they are "stars that celebrate the people who make the community what it is."
"It’s OK to celebrate the freedoms we have and to commemorate the people who gave their lives," says Dave Duprey, co-chairman of the event’s Celebration Committee, explaining how the festival honors veterans in the same spirit as the commemorative parade.
"If you want to celebrate life in a small town, we have the celebration for you," Wolf says.
Resident Ed Nelson concurs. "This is what we all fought for, the freedom of doing exactly this," he says, sitting in the middle of the park celebration.
Waterloo honors its link to the national holiday at the Memorial Day Museum, the only one of its kind in the nation. The museum was opened in 1966 by the town’s historical society. In its 22 rooms, the entire history of Waterloo’s contributions to defending our liberties and freedoms are on display in the cabinets and on the walls. Henry Welles’ apothecary scale, mortar and pestle are displayed alongside battle swords and medals, Civil War minié-balls, 19th- and early 20th-century uniforms, buckles and bayonets, and Japanese flags and Nazi armbands, trophies brought home by World War II veterans.
Monday, May 30, will be the day of commemoration in Waterloo, when veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam and other military actions gather their thoughts and reflect on the sacrifices that they and those who went before them made. In the morning, they plan to march to cemeteries to pay their respects, remembering their fallen comrades.
On Monday evening, thousands of residents will line Main Street to watch veterans and active duty and reserve troops march to a monument honoring Waterloo’s war dead in La Fayette Park. Wreaths will be laid where the names of 44 hometown heroes are inscribed, Waterloo soldiers and sailors who did not return.
Recalling the first Memorial Day, which honored the town’s Civil War dead, the Gettysburg Address will be read, the words just as moving now as they were when President Abraham Lincoln spoke them in 1863. Logan’s Order will be read aloud, speeches made, a 21-gun salute fired, and Taps will sound at dusk.
In the end though, veteran Les King’s words will hang in the air and in the memories of those who bow their heads in remembrance of fallen relatives, friends and neighbors. "We honor them for the rights we all have, rights preserved by those who have given their lives and we honor them for what they have done."
In Waterloo, the spirit of Memorial Day endures.