Waterloo: The Birthplace of Memorial Day

It was not until 1971 that President Richard Nixon declared Memorial Day a federal holiday to be observed on the 4th Monday of May. After more than 100 years of being observed on May 30, the holiday then began changing the date from year to year. But in Waterloo, May 30 remains the official date to honor the memory of veterans because this small Finger Lakes community has the distinction of being the official “Birthplace of Memorial Day.” Waterloo offers Celebrate Commemorate, community-wide activities for all ages which take place during the long holiday weekend and lead to the observance of one of America’s most patriotic holidays.

“Let Freedom Ring”
Local businesswoman Jane Shaffer has been the co-chair of Celebrate Commemorate since its inception in 2000. Committee members aim to bring the heritage of their hometown to life while respecting the true meaning of Memorial Day. Shaffer’s co-chair, Waterloo Village Trustee and Deputy Mayor Dave Duprey, says Celebrate Commemorate was conceived to mark the new millennium, and was spurred by First Lady Hillary Clinton’s arrival in the village aboard a large bus in 1998 with a banner reading, “White House Millennium Council.” Clinton was in Waterloo to dedicate the M’Clintock House at 14 East Williams Street, where the Declaration of Sentiments was drafted before the first Woman’s Rights Convention was held in nearby Seneca Falls in 1848.

With the involvement of the Waterloo Business and Professional Association, the one-year event has continued and shows no sign of abating. “There’s a lot of patriotism in Waterloo,” says Duprey, who states they draw thousands of people. Last year he met a lady who arrived by train from Philadelphia.

According to Shaffer, the theme for this year’s event from May 23 to 25 will be “Let Freedom Ring.” Bells, cut from plywood, will be, individually decorated by organizations, businesses, and residents to be displayed throughout the village. Last year, the 55 wooden cut-outs depicting heroes delighted events organizers and residents alike with their creativity. Other activities will include train excursions, an antique car show, a parade, a variety of music and performances, arts and crafts vendors, and Civil War re-enactments. These events set the stage for the more formal Memorial Day observation carried out by local veterans’ groups in the village on the 30th.

The History of Memorial Day
Honoring the dead by decorating graves is not a new custom. There are examples of this practice dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Visiting cemeteries to pay tribute to the dead has been carried out by different cultures throughout history.

The origin of Memorial Day in the United States after the Civil War (1861-65) has been attributed to different individuals and locations, from Virginia to Pennsylvania and from Mississippi to Illinois. There are stories of communities where widows and children carried flowers to the graves of those who died in the war. Some early practices are linked to the establishment of the Grand Army of the Republic or G.A.R, the Union veterans’ organization, in 1866. On May 5, 1868, three years after the end of the war, the first G.A.R. commander-in chief, John A. Logan, issued General Order Number 11 to set aside May 30th as a day for remembering the sacrifices of fallen comrades, thereby beginning the celebrations of Memorial Day:

“The 30th day 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…

“It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades.”

The term Decoration Day was the holiday’s first official name, since the main idea was to decorate the graves of the dead soldiers. The name became Memorial Day in 1882 as members of the Grand Army of the Republic and many private citizens thought the latter name was more suitable.

In 1873, New York became the first state to proclaim Memorial Day as a public holiday. Others followed suit, however Southern states did not recognize May 30 as Decoration Day until after World War I. Also, by then the ceremonial duties had shifted from the G.A.R. to the newly formed American Legion.

With the Stroke of Two Pens
Waterloo was designated “The Birthplace of Memorial Day” on March 7, 1966 in Albany, New York, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed a proclamation to that effect. Then on both May 17th and 19th U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed Congressional resolutions bestowing the same designation. On May 26, 1966 President Johnson also signed a presidential proclamation noting that Waterloo had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866 with a community-wide event during which businesses closed and residents marched to the village cemeteries and decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags. This took place two years before general Logan issued his famous Order Number 11.

Waterloo’s First Memorial Day
Why did the residents of Waterloo adopt this practice so early? According to The History and Origin of Memorial Day in Waterloo, New York (published by the Memorial Day Centennial Committee, 1966), in the summer of 1865 local Waterloo druggist, Henry Carter Welles, mentioned at a social gathering that while praising the living heroes of the war, it would be appropriate to remember the patriotic dead by placing flowers on their graves. Welles was a prominent local citizen, but the idea of a community-wide observance only came to fruition when Welles joined with the Seneca County clerk, John B. Murray, a successful lawyer and a Civil War general. The two men headed up a citizens’ committee to plan the first celebration on Saturday, May 5, 1866.

According to a “Summary of Other Claims Regarding the Origin of Memorial Day,” a document compiled in 1965-1966 by the research committee of the Waterloo Memorial Day Centennial Committee, “Townspeople adopted the idea wholeheartedly. Ladies of the village met at a local hall and prepared wreaths, crosses and bouquets for each veteran’s grave.”

All businesses were closed and the day was devoted to honoring the dead. The village was decorated with flags at half staff, draped with evergreen boughs and mourning black streamers. Led by General Murray, a large crowd of veterans, civic societies and residents marched to the strains of martial music to the three then existing village cemeteries. “Impressive and lengthy services were held at each cemetery, including speeches by General Murray and a local clergyman.” A year later on May 5, 1867, the ceremonies were repeated.

The 1966 committee’s research reveals that General Logan and General John B. Murray were friends. Murray stated at the end of his life that he mentioned Waterloo’s first Memorial Day to Logan. The paper points also to the fact that the date when Logan issued his General Order Number 11, May 5, 1868, was exactly two years to the day after the Waterloo celebration, providing compelling evidence that Logan may have been influenced by Murray.

In 1868, Waterloo joined with other communities in holding their observance on May 30th, in accordance with General Logan’s orders, and it has been held annually on that day ever since. Henry Welles died in 1868, and Murray went on to become active in the G.A.R., serving as commander of a post in Seneca Falls. He was a popular orator at political rallies, Memorial Day services, and veterans’ reunions.

The Memorial Day Museum
Today, the visitor to Waterloo can learn more about the village’s role in the history of Memorial Day at the Memorial Day Museum, opened for the centennial celebration of 1966, at 35 Main Street. A large 1840 brick house with striking decorative ironwork which stood vacant by the mid-1960s, was acquired to become a repository for the many historic records and mementos associated with Memorial Day. It has been gradually restored and is owned by the historical society.

“It’s a national museum, one for the whole country,” says Jim Hughes. While it focuses on local history, the themed exhibits of military memorabilia from the Civil War to the 20th century have broad appeal. Hughes is director of the Memorial Day Museum as well as the historical society’s Terwilliger Museum at 31 East Williams Street, which focuses on Waterloo’s history. The director believes visitors have a different slant on the Memorial Day Museum’s message of veterans’ sacrifice and service since the events of September 11, 2001. “The sacrifice is fresh in their memories,” says Hughes, himself a career army officer who retired in 1988.

For those who enjoy seeing a restored period home, the Memorial Day Museum offers several rooms with mid-to-late 19th century furnishings. There are even a few objects which belonged to both General Murray and Henry Welles, the men whose vision made Memorial Day an integral part of the village. In the front parlor General Murray’s glass wine decanter is on display, referred to as his lucky piece because it once deflected a bullet which entered through the window of a Southern home he was visiting, actually saving his life. The museum also has an old set of scales and a mortar and pestle from the pharmacy operated by Henry Welles.

Besides numerous school visits, especially second grade students from the Waterloo School District, Hughes and museum volunteers welcome individuals and groups, like the Daughters of the American Revolution, each year from May 15 to September 15.

Some of the most intriguing artifacts are the original documents signed by President Johnson and Governor Rockefeller in 1966 making Waterloo the Birthplace of Memorial Day.

If visitors want to see military uniforms representing different wars and different divisions of service, as well as those worn by nurses, the Memorial Day Museum is well supplied. Hughes admits he has to be selective with donations. “We can’t accept any more World War II uniforms and any more burial flags,” Hughes says, but adds he hopes that those the museum cannot take will be kept by the families. The exhibits are being refined on a regular basis and mark timely milestones such as the 50th anniversary of the Korean War (1950-53).

From General Logan to Vietnam
In a large upstairs room dedicated to Norman Weaver, a Vietnam War soldier from Waterloo, there is one of the museum’s newest and proudest acquisitions. A large portrait of General Logan (dated 1888) was purchased last year at an auction in Ohio and recently restored. Based on its size, it may have once hung in a G.A.R. hall, according to Hughes.

Hughes, a veteran of the Vietnam War, jokes that he has found a place for his own memorabilia, like his army-issue flashlight and chapstick labeled “for hot climate,” on display in a case, and a friend’s specialist 4th class uniform is worn by a mannequin.

Living History: Civil War Re-enactors in Waterloo
No commemoration of Memorial Day in Waterloo is complete without Civil War re-enactments. Waterloo resident Kate Schweitz belongs to the 148th New York Volunteer Regiment of Infantry, the oldest Civil War re-enactment organization in the state which has camped behind the Memorial Day Museum on more than one occasion. Schweitz got started as a re-enactor after a friend saw her at the Memorial Day Museum wearing a Victorian outfit. “I don’t get into the war history,” says Schweitz, who portrays a civilian – a widow whose husband died from an epidemic and who is looking for her lost son in the war. Besides her costume, she enjoys the more relaxed pace of life re-enactments offer, and listens to Civil War music in the car when she travels to one. Schweitz wears her hooped-skirt costume in a daguerreotype taken by John Coffer of Dundee, who makes daguerreotypes for the re-enactments.

This year’s Celebrate Commemorate will again include John A. Reynolds L 1st NY Light Artillery re-enactors at the Williams Street Field behind Waterloo Middle School on May 24 and 25. Civil War re-enactment has become a family affair with Averell and Tina Bauder of Romulus, who belong to the Reynolds group. Tina got “hooked” after being invited to fire a cannon at a Civil War Weekend several years ago at the Granger Homestead in Canandaigua. When she saw the Homestead’s grounds covered with tents and people in period costume, history came alive for the 7th grade history teacher at South Seneca Middle School in Ovid. Tina portrays a nurse, and her uniforms range from a large man’s shirt with a dark colored skirt and Army-issue belt, to a bloomer outfit made popular by Amelia Bloomer, the suffragette from Seneca Falls. Nurses could not wear corsets or hoop skirts, customary at the time, because they would catch fire and made it difficult to tend to the wounded on the ground, according to Tina.

The original Reynolds Battery, organized in West Virginia in 1861 and assigned to the Army of the Potomac in 1862, was engaged in 17 different battles, including Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Antietam and the Second Bull Run.

“The Civil War is the defining moment in American History,” says Tina’s husband Averell, adding “It is when we decided to be the United States and not these United States.” Averell, the director of public service at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, is a history buff and portrays an artillerist. As a corporal gunner he gives orders to load and fire the cannon. He is also the safety officer, making sure the lanes are clear and that everyone has covered their ears before the cannon is fired. Averell meets young people who do not know about the Civil War. “I love the teaching aspect of the whole thing,” says the father of two young boys, but he admits there is still a fun “hobby” aspect of being a re-enactor. “We are still kids playing soldier,” says Averell.

The Bauders’ 4-year-old son, Nathaniel, loves to sing “Battle Cry of Freedom,” once sung by soldiers to reduce the monotony of marching. He wears a replica of his father’s uniform and enjoys going to re-enactments to be with “the boom guys,” according to Tina. The couple’s second son, Chamberlain, born in July of 2002, is named for a Civil War general. He has already gone to a few events and will no doubt accompany the family to Waterloo this May.
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The 148th New York Volunteers and One of Their Descendants
One local Waterloo resident has a unique connection to the original 148th New York Volunteers, which was made up of recruits from the Finger Lakes region. Horace “Red” Rumsey’s father was a veteran of the Civil War. Horace Rumsey, Sr. (1844-1928) is mentioned several times in the history of the 148th New York Volunteers, They Marched on Richmond by George Shadman, Jr., and his photograph appears on the book’s cover. Rumsey, now 87, was only 12 when his father died and he is one of only thirty-six sons of Civil War Union veterans still living.

The books lists Rumsey, Sr. as a corporal in Company A in the rosters of September 1862 at Camp Swift in Geneva. Author Shadman writes that the 148th New York Volunteers were not at Gettysburg and some of the other major battles of the war. But in 1864-1865, “they paid their dues and suffered horrendous casualties.”

Rumsey’s father is listed as wounded in action in the Battle of Cold Harbor in June, 1864. Afterwards his son says he was in a field hospital for a time. The younger Rumsey does not recall his father talking much about the war to him and his older brother after he came home. Once, his father showed him a hole in the back of his thigh which he said was what “the sniper” did to him. Rumsey compares his father to veterans of more recent wars who did not want to talk too much about their battlefield experiences. When he returned to Seneca Falls, Rumsey, Sr. worked for the family business, Rumsey Pump Company, for 60 years.
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Discovering Memorial Day History on a Walking Tour of Waterloo
Although the homes of Memorial Day founders Welles and Murray are not open to the public, they are easy to find on a walking tour. The Henry Welles House, a two-story Greek Revival house dating 1849-50, is at 13 Center Street. The 1817 house General Murray rented at 111 West Main Street (Routes 5 & 20, corner of Oak Street) faces Lafayette Park, where Memorial Day is observed. Murray was a resident of Seneca Falls, but as Clerk of Seneca County he moved to Waterloo, the county seat. The Seneca County Clerk building still stands at 30 Virginia Street (Route 96), although it has been radically altered and is now a business.

Lafayette Park, named in 1922 to commemorate the 1825 visit of the Revolutionary War hero, General Marquis de LaFayette, is a focal point of village celebrations and has monuments honoring veterans. A large medallion-shaped monument at the park’s south side displays the official logo recognizing the village as the Birthplace of Memorial Day.

Perhaps there may be no better way to reflect on the meaning of Memorial Day than to attend Waterloo’s annual observation on Friday, May 30, 2003. The tentative schedule follows:

8:30 a.m. Service at St. Mary’s Cemetery, W. Wright Ave.
10:30 a.m. March from VFW to Maple Grove Cemetery
11:00 a.m. Services at Maple Grove Cemetery
5:30 p.m. Memorial Day Parade-lineup at Clark and Main Street
6:00 p.m. Memorial Day Parade march to Lafayette Park
6:30 p.m. Memorial Day Service at Lafayette Park – For details contact the Waterloo VFW at (315) 539-9585 or the Waterloo American Legion at (315) 539-8248

For a schedule of events for Celebrate Commemorate 2003, May 23-25, go to www.waterloony.com and click on the Celebrate Commemorate icon, or call Jane Shaffer at (800) 833-3210.

For information on the Terwilliger and Memorial Day Museums, call (315) 539-0533.


by Laurel C. Wemett
Laurel C. Wemett is a correspondent for the Messenger-Post newspapers in Canandaigua. She owns a gift shop named Cat’s in the Kitchen and lives in Canandaigua.