As it were

Memorial Day shapes up as family day

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Soldiers Circle at Green Lawn Cemetery circa 1910-1915.

It was a pleasant sunny day on Friday, May 30, 1913, and most of Columbus took the day off to celebrate Memorial Day for the 47th time. Originally held to remember the sacrifice of Union Army soldiers in the American Civil War, the holiday with the passage of time became an opportunity to remember all of the people who had provided military service to their country.

Often called Decoration Day, the holiday was observed with a parade through downtown Columbus which ended with parade participants and observers alike taking streetcars to Green Lawn and Mt. Calvary cemeteries. In the days before Memorial Day, the school children of Columbus had collected an immense quantity of peonies, early roses and other flowers. Gathered into more than 3,000 bouquets, the flowers were placed with a flag on the grave of every veteran in the two cemeteries. By the time the streetcars full of people arrived for memorial services, the veterans' sections of both cemeteries resembled large gardens of flowers and flags.

After the services at the cemetery, most people returned to downtown Columbus and arrived just in time to witness the latest addition to Memorial Day. At twelve noon, the church bells of Columbus rang for five full minutes. With businesses, schools and public offices closed for the day, the residents of Columbus had several different options at their disposal to conclude the holiday. For many veterans and their families, the memorial aspect of the day continued with afternoon programs and exercises at Memorial Hall, Franklin Park and Union Cemetery.

At Memorial Hall, Congressman Isaac Sherwood of Toledo, spoke about a new pension bill he had introduced. "A great deal has been said about the vast pension roll," Sherwood said to a reporter before his speech. "But I am going to prove that the soldiers of the Revolutionary War were better compensated than have been the veterans of the Civil War."

The proposal to improve pension benefits for veterans was perhaps a case of better late than never. Central Ohio had sent thousands of men off to serve in the American Civil War. In the 1913 parade only 180 of them were able to march around Statehouse Square to begin the celebration of Memorial Day.

"It's only a matter of a dozen years or less until Memorial Day will be observed, not by veterans, but by the Sons of Veterans," said O. L. Franks, commander of the Wells Post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union Army veterans organization.

For other people, Memorial Day was increasingly becoming not so much a commemorative event as a simple vacation day from work or school. Downtown restaurants and theaters were open and did a brisk business with both afternoon and evening offerings. The great amusement parks -- Olentangy and Indianola -- were open as well with a new season of swimming, boating and other diversions beginning on Memorial Day.

The amusement parks were in some sense a response to a change in how people got around the city. Columbus had had streetcars on its streets since 1863.

But they were horse drawn, hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The electrified streetcar changed all of that. Now streetcars could be heated in the winter and move fast enough to make their own breeze in the summer. The arches that carried power to the cars gave the city its nickname -- the Arch City. And the speed and inexpensiveness of the cars led directly to the rise of "streetcar suburbs" some distance from downtown.

But the success of the streetcar company was limited. People rode them in the morning and evening back and forth to work. The cars were not used all that much at other times. To remedy the problem, the streetcar company sponsored the construction of attractive and alluring amusement parks at the end of the streetcar lines. The strategy worked and both the street car company and the amusement parks prospered.

For many if not most people in the Columbus of a century ago, Memorial Day was becoming a more private family holiday.

Increasingly people visited local cemeteries and placed flowers on the graves of family members whether they were veterans or not. Following a visit to the cemetery, family reunions at home took place all across the city.

A flag was displayed and the family gathered on the porch as the afternoon moved toward evening.

Columbus was a city of spacious porches in those days. And on Memorial Day the porches were filled with people. As the daylight faded, younger folks might travel to an amusement park or a theater. But for most of Columbus, a perfect Memorial Day ended where it began -- at home.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.