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Memorial Day has origin in Finger Lakes

WATERLOO—From the celebrations of soldiers returning home from the Civil War arose what would one day become Memorial Day.
What few people realize is the birthplace is right here in the Finger Lakes, in Waterloo. The history of how Memorial Day started in 1865, then Decoration Day, is chronicled at the National Memorial Day Museum in Waterloo. Tanya Warren, director of the museum, explained how the idea became popular locally and grew to become nationally recognized. She said it only ever happened because someone knew the right person.
Warren said the idea came about in Waterloo in 1865, mentioned first by Henry C. Welles. At the time, residents would gather on the street corners to welcome home soldiers returning from war. It was Welles who suggested to some friends that the community should do something formal to also honor those who died. Warren explained that because 640,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, almost everyone had a family member who did not return home. However, she said Welles was known as a quiet man and the idea probably would not have gone anywhere if he had not been friends with General John B. Murray. The general liked the idea and in 1866 and 1867 Waterloo celebrated Decoration Day May 5.
The day to honor soldiers who died in combat made the leap to the national scale because of someone Murray knew, General John A. Logan. Warren said after Logan was elected post commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, he made Decoration Day an official event for the GAR. It was moved to May 30 for 1868. Warren explained the GAR was like what the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) is today. Warren said the practice became popular among the veterans.
She added that even though Memorial Day started in Waterloo, President Abraham Lincoln spoke about honoring fallen soldiers in the Gettysburg Address. She also pointed out many people individually visited and decorated soldiers’ graves before Decoration Day was established. However, it was an official event for the community in Waterloo first. In 1966, Waterloo was celebrating the centennial of Memorial Day. The community did research to prove they were the first community to hold a specific event for honoring the fallen soldiers. Warren said in May of that year the state house and senate recognized Waterloo as the birthplace of Memorial Day. Later that month President Lyndon B. Johnson also recognized Waterloo.
While in 1971 the date for Memorial Day was changed to the last full weekend in May, Warren said Waterloo celebrates both that and whenever May 30 is. For the Memorial Day weekend, the National Memorial Day Museum will be honoring the two men who helped establish the museum in 1966. For the first time, Welles-Murray Awards will be given to John Genung, posthumously, and Richard Schreck.

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