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First recorded Memorial Day exercises were in 1884

Memorial Day was once known as Decoration Day, a time to decorate the graves of veterans. Following the Civil War many communities set aside a day to mark the end of the war as a memorial to those who had died. This was especially common in southern cities. It is believed that the first Memorial Day was observed by liberated slaves at the historic race track in Charleston, S.C. The site was a former confederate prison camp as well as a mass grave for Union Soldiers who died while captive. A parade with thousands of freed blacks and union soldiers was followed by patriotic singing.

In the north, Civil War Veterans known as the Grand Army of the Republic or G.A.R. held the observance on May 30. In 1966, President Johnson designated Waterloo, N.Y. as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. The celebration continued to be held on May 30 until 1968 when the Congress decreed that Memorial Day be moved from its traditional day to a specified Monday to create a three day weekend.

The first recorded mention of Memorial Day in Wadena was in the Northern Pacific Farmer in 1884 which stated, "Shortly after noon, the G.A.R. post led by the Cornet Band filed down Third Street (Jefferson) to the skating rink, where the preliminary exercises were held prior to the march to the cemetery and the decoration of graves. Five individuals composed the choir at the exercises and mention was made of the perfect drill of the Light Guards.

Wadena's G.A.R, the Farragut Post No.102, was organized 1883 with George A. Whitney as commander and they were in charge of all Memorial Day observances. According to the Wadena Pioneer Journal of May 24, 1894, the program was as follows:

"Promptly at 12:30 p.m. the Citizen's Band and members of Farragut Post will assemble at the Post Room and prepare to march to Front Street (Aldrich Avenue) where the procession will form in front of the Merchant's Hotel. The line will march up Third Street (Jefferson) to the Court House where the exercises will be held. Following, the procession will reform with the Mayor, Council and Citizens in carriages and march to the cemetery where the exercises will consist of music, prayer, address, singing and decoration of graves and then return to the G.A.R. hall and be dismissed."

The cannon at the cemetery arrived in 1898 and was placed in the cemetery on a lot which had been reserved for Civil War veterans. This was a little north and east of its present location.

In 1915, due to the dwindling number of G.A.R. members, the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal order, took over Memorial Day exercises. Some years later that lodge disbanded and the exercises were taken over by the Women's Relief Corp.

This group continued in charge until after World War I when the American Legion took over the function. After World War II, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars combined their efforts, continuing to this day, which consist of grave decorating and Memorial Day exercises at the cemetery. For many years a parade was formed at the Bandstand with the Citizen's Band and Veterans, Gold Star Mothers, Boy and Girl Scouts and school children in the group. This practice was discontinued some years ago.

In the early 80's, Charles Sartell and the VFW undertook the project of building a memorial wall and moving the cannon to its present location. The VFW also constructed an avenue of flags to beautify the road into the cemetery.

Decoration of graves continues and expands every year. In 2006, there were 620 veteran burials in the Wadena City and Catholic cemeteries. They included one Mexican War veteran, 71 Civil War veterans, one confederate veteran, one Spanish American War, 155 World War I, 304 World War II, 56 Korean War, 24 Vietnam War along with a few National Guard burials.

The cemeteries, which in early days were brush patches, are now beautiful and peaceful places, well tended and a fitting tribute to our Veteran dead.

This year, 2014, more than 650 veteran's graves in the Wadena cemeteries will be decorated with flags and markers.

Compiled in 2007 by Robert C. Zosel from articles in the Wadena Pioneer Journal. Lina Belar is the interim executive director of the Wadena County Historical Society.