I remember watching the Memorial Day parades in the early 1950s when, as a boy, I wore a red paper poppy pinned to my jacket in honor of fallen soldiers. It’s a tradition carried on today by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
I learned that the “Buddy Poppy” originated around 1918 when Moina Michael, a Georgia native, was inspired by the poem “In Flanders Field” to make paper poppies, an idea that led to the “Memorial Poppy” becoming a national symbol.
Memorial Day was first observed in 1868 to honor soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in communities throughout the northern states. Southern states also had their Memorial Days, but they picked different days for their observances for many years after the end of the war between the states.
Those early Memorial Days were filled with parades and speeches. The Lewiston Evening Journal accounts of the events in 1904 and 1905 described some interesting details that echo through observances to this day.
The Grand Army of the Republic had two posts in Lewiston and one in Auburn, and its members marched proudly although there were fewer and fewer of them each year. For the 1904 parade in Lewiston, the Custer Post had 75 representatives in the march, and Knox Post had 35 members.
Burnside Post in Auburn was the host for the parade in that city. We now place flags on veterans’ graves, but the earlier custom was to place wreaths and bouquets. The ladies of the veterans’ organizations spent the mornings on Memorial Day preparing the decorations, and they visited the cemeteries in the afternoon.
The parade in Auburn took a slight detour in 1905. The newspaper report said, “By request of Hillman Smith, who has been ill for several months, the route of the parade as planned was changed to go up Vine Street past his home.” The story also stated that “frequent stops were made on the march for refreshments.”
The soldiers’ monument in front of the Androscoggin County Building “was decorated with evergreen and black and white bunting, the scheme being a solid green base with streamers running from the four corners at the foot of the statue to the ground, and with the names of the soldiers and the body of the monument draped in mourning.”
That evening’s speeches at Auburn Hall were attended by a large crowd, the account said. They came to hear Col. C.H. French, a noted Civil War veteran from Indiana, and his message carried a special surprise for the Burnside Post of the GAR.
Col. French told how he had visited the Georgia site of the Confederacy’s Andersonville Prison where nearly 13,000 Union prisoners died because of overcrowding and disease.
“I was there a short time ago and went over the entire prison site,” he said. “I even visited the spring which burst out of the hillside during a thunder shower at a time when the prisoners were suffering for water.”
He told how he found a birch tree beside that spring and he picked up a broken branch under it.
“Obtaining permission from the guard, I took the branch away with me,” he told the audience. “With the assistance of a Negro, who furnished a shovel and a pick, I dug up an old pine log that once formed a part of the prison walls of Andersonville. The birch I have had made into a mallet head and the pine into a handle. The mallet is here, and I take great pleasure in presenting it to Burnside Post.”
Is that gavel still kept somewhere in the Twin Cities, and is its significance remembered? It would be a remarkable symbol to be displayed in our Memorial Day observances through the coming years.
David Sargent is a native of Auburn and is a freelance writer. He may be reached by e-mailing [email protected]