story and photos by James P. Hughes
Along with the brilliant colors of an autumn landscape and the more subtle hues of spring blossoms and blooms, the vivid red, white, and blue of the American flag is deftly woven into the vibrant Finger Lakes mosaic.
“Old Glory” waves proudly from many a park pole, village lamppost, and public building. The fluttering colors adorn picturesque porches in towns, along country byways, and at lakeside cottages. Much of this can be said about most areas across the country… but certain Finger Lakes connections involving the American flag run a bit deeper.
Flags pop up in any number of interesting spots around the region. One flies in Pultneyville’s Lake View Cemetery atop a stately obelisk. Erected in October of 1865, the unique monument is the first in New York State (some believe in the country) to memorialize Civil War dead.
In Nunda, a handmade “Stars and Stripes” sent off to the Civil War with a local company later returned to the village with the conflict’s survivors. In due course, the flag went missing for many decades. Eventually rediscovered, tattered and torn, it has been carefully restored and now proudly hangs at the Nunda Historical Society museum.
There are communities where display of the American flag is taken a step further. One of them is Skaneateles. Every year since 2010, rows of American flags spread out across the breadth of Shotwell Park in the lakeside village during the period surrounding Veterans Day. Local residents purchase flags in honor of family members or friends who have served and sacrificed for the nation. The rows unfold in every direction with the number of flags reaching into the hundreds. The stunning display is sponsored by the Skaneateles girls’ lacrosse team whose members sell and place the flags. Each year the community turns out for a solemn ceremony where players read the names of individual veterans – fallen, deceased, or living. A majority of the event’s proceeds are donated to the American Legion.
Famed Flag Firsts
There are at least two Finger Lakes communities that maintain a special pride in their flag-related sites; each stands alone with its unique place in American history.
Waterloo is the established “Home of Memorial Day.” While all communities with parades and ceremonies treat the day with reverence, in Waterloo the occasion has a special significance. The village was the first location in the United States to hold an organized Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day) celebration in honor of those lost in the Civil War. On May 5th, 1866, flags flew and patriotic music played as scores of villagers marched to three local cemeteries to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with evergreens and the black drapes of mourning. The event has continued annually since that day.
Despite similar “first time” claims from other communities, a century later in 1966 the federal government officially declared what Waterloo residents had long alleged:
“Resolved that the Congress of the United States, in recognition of the patriotic tradition set in motion one hundred years ago in the Village of Waterloo, NY, does hereby officially recognize Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day…”
Draped with American flags, the National Memorial Day Museum in Waterloo has undertaken the task of relating a complete and accurate history of Memorial Day – “room by room and panel by panel” – from its founding in 1866 through its evolution to the present.
Mount Morris is perhaps best known as the northern entrance to spectacular Letchworth State Park, the renowned “Grand Canyon of the East.” But the quiet Yates County village is historic with a notable claim to flag fame.
Along Main Street a blue New York State historical sign (appropriately lettered in white and trimmed in red) sits in front of a neatly traditional village house, the birthplace and early boyhood home of Francis J. Bellamy (1855 – 1931). Bellamy’s name is not quickly recognizable, yet most of us have uttered his words (or an altered form of them) a multitude of times throughout our lives. It was Francis Bellamy who authored our Pledge of Allegiance.
Bellamy became a Baptist minister, writer, and lecturer often espousing ideas that swerved from prevailing views and thought of the period. Involved in a “schoolhouse flag movement” with a goal of providing American flags to all schools, he wrote the original pledge in 1892. It was first published in a patriotic magazine to help advance his cause.
I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Bellamy’s original intent was for the pledge to be used by the citizens of any nation. As time went on it took on more of an institutional role and, not without controversy, some tinkering was done. In 1923, the words “the Flag of the United States of America” were added and Congress decreed in 1954 that the words “under God” be included. Banners in Mount Morris proclaim the village as “Birthplace of Francis Bellamy” and “His Words Became Our Nation’s Pledge.” Others display the original pledge printed across a flag image.
A peaceful stroll between rows of flags in Skaneateles. A visit to Waterloo’s Memorial Day museum. A simple drive past the Red, White, and Blue waving on a picturesque porch. Each can provide a special opportunity – a moment to pause, a time to reflect.