Monday, May 26, 2014

Helena’s First Decoration Day

Decoration Day, later called Memorial Day, was a tradition that sprang from the tremendous loses both the north and the south experienced during the Civil War. The tradition of decorating veterans’ graves took root in different states at different times from the 1870s through the early twentieth century. On May 30, 1883, Helena observed Decoration Day for the first time with a mile-long procession that assembled at Harmonia Hall on Broadway. It made its way out of the city to the cemetery on Benton Avenue. Nearly 1,500 people participated in the march, including some fifty veterans of the Civil War and a few veterans of the war with Mexico, accompanied by the Silver Coronet Band. Ladies and gentlemen in carriages joined the crowd at the cemetery, and flowers and evergreens were laid upon the graves of veterans. Wilbur F. Sanders gave a lengthy address while the Reverend T. V. Moore officiated as chaplain. This observance, the Helena Daily Herald pointed out on June 2, 1883, brought to light the deplorable condition of the city's protestant and Catholic cemeteries whose wooden head and foot boards had deteriorated and could not be deciphered:

Some of the noblest men and women... lie buried there; yet their resting places cannot be identified. After considerable inquiry, we do not find that plot of the lots… is kept. The county gravedigger keeps no record of interments. He digs a hole and covers a corpse and the name of the dead is buried in the same oblivion as is his body….

The only known historic photo of a Helena cemetery is this undated one of the Catholic Cemetery on Oakes, also known as St. Mary’s Cemetery. By the 1920s, it was abandoned. Robinson Park, created in 1972, covers some 1100 burials that still lie beneath the sod. Courtesy Charleen Spalding.
Only one-fourth of the graves in the city's several cemeteries were marked. This informal tally included the now-forgotten graves that remained in the old City Cemetery near the grounds of Central School and the Catholic Cemetery on Oakes, now Robinson Park. At this time in Helena’s history, the only well-tended burial ground was the Jewish Home of Peace, now tucked next to Capital High School.

No comments:

Post a Comment