This year marks the 150th anniversary of Memorial Day. On May 30th, 1868, a group of veteran Union soldiers known as the Grand Army of the Republic held the first "Decoration Day" as it was known back then as a way to commemorate their fallen comrades.
Noank, Connecticut has been cited by several sources on the internet for having the longest running continuous Memorial Day Parade in the country. Are those sources correct?
Noanker Dr. Karen Meister Willis spent a year looking into this claim. Along the way, she learned plenty about her hometown, including the date of Noank's first Decoration Day parade - May 30th 1876. The event was reported in the June 2nd, 1876 edition of the Mystic River Press.
Decoration Day was observed here (Noank). A company met at the schoolhouse with 50 or 60 of the small children. At 3 o'clock they were out in marching order, with flags in hand, directed by Elihu H. Potter (of the surviving soldiers of the war) and marched to the cemetery. After arriving there, the children sang “precious jewels”, then a very affecting prayer was offered by brother Benjamin F. Bailey (another survivor of the war), then an appropriate speech from Mr. Augustine L. Chester, also one from Elihu H. Potter. After decorating the several graves, the company all sang America, and separated.
Willis said once they reached the cemetery, the procession of children and veterans put flowers on the graves of 9 men from Noank who served in the Civil War, including the grave of Fenimore C. Weeks, who died at the Battle of Antietam.
September 21st, 1862
Dear Madam It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of your son Fenimore Weeks who was killed in the battle of the 17th. He was shot through the head and did not live but a few moments after he was struck. His effects I will send to you as soon as I have an opportunity and will write you more of the particulars.
John Kies, Captain, co. F
The parade changed over the years - Willis said in 1881 the Noank band joined the procession to the cemetery, and in 1917 the fire department joined the parade.
In 1929, the American Legion took over leadership of the Noank parade from the Grand Army of the Republic, as the number of Civil war veterans dwindled.
What struck Willis in her research was how, over the years, the parade managed to keep the spirit and traditions of the small coastal village's first Decoration Day parade in 1876.
“It is still a very solemn event. It still goes to the cemetery. It still talks about the nine men who died. and it has remained true to its roots.”
Willis says unfortunately her research could not back up the claim that Noank has the longest running Memorial Day Parade in the country. But she says what she discovered was something much deeper about the place she grew up, where she remembers as a girl marching with with her brownie and girl scout troops to the Noank Valley Cemetery on Memorial Day.
Noank's 142nd Memorial Day Parade begins Monday at 10am.