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Memorial Day celebrations date back 126 years in Wadena

Local historian Bob Zosel, a World War II veteran, has kept a record of the history of Memorial Day observances in Wadena. He encourages others to remember veterans on the holiday.

Each Memorial Day there are more veterans' graves to decorate in the Wadena City and Catholic cemeteries.

Local historian Bob Zosel, a World War II veteran, said about 700 graves in the cemeteries belong to veterans, many of whom served during World War II. The numbers include one Mexican War veteran, 71 Grand Army of the Republic veterans, one Confederate veteran, one Spanish-American War veteran, 155 World War I veterans, 328 World War II veterans, 61 Korean War veterans and 29 Vietnam War veterans.

Zosel wrote a two-page history of Wadena's Memorial Day history in 2006. He counted 304 World War II veterans, 56 Korean War veterans and 24 Vietnam War veterans buried in the cemeteries at that time. Those numbers have grown by 34.

Zosel, a World War II veteran, has decorated graves for the American Legion since 1953. There were 150 graves to decorate back then, he said. The 85-year-old had to give up decorating last year. He encourages others to honor Memorial Day.

"If it wasn't for the veterans, this country wouldn't be what it is today," Zosel said. "They always say freedom isn't free."

All veterans are entitled to a flag for Memorial Day whether or not they served during war time, Zosel said.

Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day, was first officially observed on May 5, 1866, in Waterloo, N.Y.

The first recorded mention of Memorial Day in Wadena was in the Northern Pacific Farmer in 1884, which said, "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."

The G.A.R. consisted of northern Civil War veterans.

A program included in the May 24, 1894, edition of the Wadena Pioneer records how the ceremony was organized for that year. The Citizens Band and members of the Farragut Post 102, G.A.R., which was in charge of Memorial Day observances, were asked to assemble at the Post Room promptly at 12:30 p.m. to prepare for the march to Front Street (Aldrich Avenue) where the procession would form in front of the Merchant's Hotel, according to the newspaper. The line would march up Third Street (Jefferson) to the courthouse for the day's exercises. Then the procession would reform with the mayor, council and citizens in carriages and march to the cemetery for music, prayer, an address, singing and the decoration of graves.

The canon in the Wadena cemetery arrived in 1898. It was placed on lot reserved for Civil War veterans, which was a little north and east of its present location, according to Zosel's history.

In 1915, a fraternal order called the Knights of Pythias took over the Memorial Day observances due to the dwindling number of G.A.R. members. The Knights of Pythias eventually disbanded and the Women's Relief Corp took over the observances followed by the American Legion after World War I. Since World War II, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars have organized Memorial Day observances in Wadena.

For many years Wadena's observance of Memorial Day included a parade, Zosel said. Zosel marched in the parade with the band, which he joined in 1946.

The parade formed at the band stand. The Citizens Band, veterans, Gold Star Mothers, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and school children marched down Jefferson Street to Franklin Avenue to the cemetery. They always played the "National Emblem" as they marched through town, Zosel recalled.

"It was fun because lots of people lined up on both sides of Jefferson, even Franklin," he said.

The band played a muffled drumbeat when they got to the cemetery.

"It was quite an impressive ceremony," he said.

In the early 1980s, Charles Sartell and the VFW built a memorial wall and moved the canon to its present location, according to Zosel. The VFW also constructed the avenue of flags along the road into the cemetery.

"It's really quite a beautiful sight -- (the) avenue of flags, flags on graves," Zosel said.

This year's Memorial Day observances in Wadena begin at 6:30 a.m. Monday, May 31 with a flag raising ceremony by the mausoleum at the cemetery. The program is at 9 a.m. and will be opened and closed by VFW Post 3922 Commander Chuck Venzke. The Wadena Community Band will perform and Christopher Staples will give the Memorial Day address. The program also includes the Pledge of Allegiance, readings, a firing squad salute and the playing of "Taps." The public is also invited to a Memorial Day program at Sunnybrook Park after the program at the cemetery to honor servicemen and women who died at sea.

Local historian Bob Zosel contributed the Memorial Day history to this article.