When you grow up going every year to the longest, continuous Memorial Day celebration in the United States, the observance of this holiday becomes more than a tradition: it becomes part of you.
All my ancestors settled on the High Plains, northwestern Kansas in particular, after the Civil War. It has never been clear exactly why they chose Norton and Decatur counties in the northwest corner, but both my mother and father’s grandparents did. One set of my mother’s grandparents did so in part because when they headed west, they first went to southeast Nebraska where some friends were.
From there they headed on west, taking the train to southwestern Nebraska. They got off the train at Wilsonville, where they bought a wagon and team and some supplies (which were stolen while they ate lunch.) They went straight south into Kansas to the land they’d chosen, north of Norcatur.
Once there they went about settling in, first digging a well, a very deep one, then building their sod and dugout home. As they established their farm and became part of the community, their kids went to school in a sod structure, and they all attended church in a sod building.
In case you haven’t figured it out, there were no trees in that area.
That first Memorial Day service was held at Norcatur Cenetery. The settlers in the area who participated included veterans from the Civil War. Kansas became a state in 1861, passed by Congress January 29 and signed by the President in February. It had not become a state earlier because of the Congressional battles over slavery – letting it be extended or not. Kansas and its statehood were a key element in that battle.
One of the activities of the Norcatur Memorial Day was the parade from the center of town to the cemetery on the northeast edge. Participating veterans found their old uniforms, and if they no longer fit, they’d at least wear their hats. Vets from the Confederate and Northern armies marched in that first parade, and all the children who could walk the distance.
Walking in the parade with our tiny American flags was what we always did. I marched the first time when I was 3. That parade had one or two Spanish American War vets, plus vets from WW I and II.
That first 19th century event was when the tradition of gathering afterwards for a meal started. That first time, a picnic was held in the park for all who wanted to attend. Well, while the day’s events had gone very well, from decorating the graves with flags and flowers on the previous evening or early that morning, to marching to the cemetery to firing the 21-gun salute.
As the picnic concluded and horseshoe pitching and other games began, the drinking was well under way. The result was that some heated discussions between Yankees and Southerners took place, followed by some scuffling and finally brawling.
As the day wound down, the folks went off to their homes, but only after agreeing that it was all good, and they would certainly do it all again the next year. And so they did, year after year, every year since.
heard all this from my great-grandparents, of course, when I became one of those Memorial Day participants, helping Grandma cut flowers and taking them to the cemetery the evening before, and then marching in the parade.
After the ceremonies and the mulling, mingling and visiting at the cemetery, my extended family would gather in the basement at City Hall for a family reunion dinner. The memories of these times with extended family are as embedded in me as any family experiences could be. I miss it.