Linn Wells, the well known former sports director for Channel 13-TV and onetime Bowdoin College hockey coach, pulled no punches when broadcasting a story. It’s 1970 and by now the 69-year-old Wells was station manager and “roving reporter” for Farmington’s WKTJ radio. Wells, also an eight-year Navy veteran of the World War II and Korean eras, was clearly perturbed by the new Maine law that moved Memorial Day from the 30th of May to the last Monday of that month. Thus, when his home town of Wilton decided to adhere to tradition and conduct its parade on Saturday the 30th rather than Monday the 25th Wells extolled the town’s judgment. He thus ended his coverage of the event that day by proclaiming that Wilton was celebrating “the real Memorial Day.”
Reality can of course be a bit elusive and occasionally subjective. But on this, the 40th anniversary of the shift Maine made to observing Memorial Day on the last Monday of May, it’s worth taking a look at how the holiday emerged in its present form.
Nationally, the holiday began just after the Civil War. This occurred first in the South when widows and orphans of fallen Civil War veterans decorated the graves of soldiers from both sides of the conflict in April 1866. By 1868, Gen.John Logan won public favor in the North with his order that year to observe a “Memorial Day” on the 30th of May. This date was chosen by Logan because it corresponded to the same day in 1865 when Union volunteers were officially discharged from service.
Because Logan’s order was a military one it did not have the immediate effect of making May 30th a civilian legal holiday. That was left to the states. Within a few years most in the North did this.
In Maine, this occurred in 1874, when the Legislature made May 30th its sixth legal holiday. (New Years Day, Washington’s Birthday, July 4th, Thanksgiving, and Christmas were the others already on the books.)
By the 1930s, a movement was afoot to move Memorial Day and most of the other holidays to a Monday. Championing this effort in Maine in 1939 was a 27-year-old secobnd-term legislator from Kennebunkport, Joy Dow, Jr., a Portland advertising agency owner and recent Bates College alumnus. A bill Dow sponsored to change Memorial, Patriots, Columbus, Veterans, and Washington’s Birthday to Monday holiday status won unanimous backing of the Legislature’s Legal Affairs Committee and also passed the House of Representatives.
Dow heralded the proposed holiday change as one that would benefit both tourism as well as the state’s own workers. “We spend, here in Maine, a fortune to develop the dtate as a recreation land for other people in other states … Let us give the people of Maine five weekends when they too can enjoy the finest state in the 48.”
Dow also decried the older system as both expensive and inconvenient. On this point Dow cited a letter from a Portland hotel that claimed losses of some $2,500 every time Washington’s Birthday fell on either a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday because salesmen would cancel the other days of the week rather than spend an idle day in the middle of it.
Dow’s proposal ran aground in the Senate, where an older group including sons of Civil War heroes ridiculed the break from tradition the bill symbolized. Among them was Augusta’s Robert Cony, who pointed to the role that such Maine luminaries as Brewer’s Joshua Chamberlain and O.O. Howard of Leeds played in the War Between the States.
Not only tradition, but also practicality entered the Senate debate. That’s when Bangor Sen. Harold Worthen argued that the proposed law would create confusion because the state would then be observing holidays on a date different than those in other parts of the country. Dow’s bill then went down to a 26-to-1 Senate defeat in the 1939 legislature, despite its passage in the House.
In 1955, the Monday holiday bill was re-introduced by freshman Rep. Rodney Ross of Bath. Eighty-two-year old Judge Clifford McGlauflin, in successfully leading opposition to the proposal, compared Ross to a “Gaul overthrowing Rome,” and defended the traditional system as the “bulwark of our national morale and patriotism.” With that, Ross’s bill lost on a vote of 100-to-11.
The bill finally emerged triumphant from the 1969 legislature, in a law that made the change for Memorial Day effective the following year. Impetus for this was Congressional legislation doing the same thing for post offices and most other federal facilities, thus making it difficult for the states to march to the beat of a different drummer.
The new date still did not sit well with veterans groups who soon successfully prevailed on several legislatures to re-set the date to May 30th but contingent on Congress following suit. Maine enacted such a measure in 1975. A leading proponent of restoring the May 30th tradition in the 1975 session was Waterville Rep.Richard “Spike” Carey, who lamented that under the new law, “We have gone away from the original intent of Memorial Day setting that day aside for the remembrance of our dead, and that we now have commercialized it and made it just another day for the Chamber of Commerce to push the fact that we have a three- day weekend.”
Though the shift of Memorial Day to a Monday holiday now seems widely accepted many middle aged and older veterans will no doubt be echoing Linn Wells’s 1970 assessment when he challenged the last Monday of May designation as not being the “real Memorial Day.” A younger generation might also, of course, consider the practice of the last four decades as having acquired an authenticity of its own. Time will tell.
Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached bye-mail: [email protected]