Memorial Day in Plainfield, Massachusetts: A Celebration to Remember
A Little History on Memorial Day Celebrations
Originally called Decoration Day, from the early tradition of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths and flags, Memorial Day is a day for remembrance of those who have died in service to our country. It was first widely observed on May 30, 1868 to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, by proclamation of Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former Union sailors and soldiers.
During that first national commemoration, former Union General and sitting Ohio Congressman James Garfield,made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried there.
“We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”– James A. Garfield May 30, 1868 Arlington National Cemetery
This national event galvanized efforts to honor and remember fallen soldiers that began with local observances at burial grounds in several towns throughout the United States following the end of the Civil War, such as the May 1, 1865 gathering in Charleston, South Carolina organized by freed slaves to pay tribute and give proper burial to Union troops.
In 1873, New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day as a legal holiday. By the late 1800s, many more cities and communities observed Memorial Day, and several states had declared it a legal holiday.
After World War I, it became an occasion for honoring those who died in all of America’s wars and was then more widely established as a national holiday throughout the United States. (https://www.history.com/news/8-things-you-may-not-know-about-memorial-day)
Memorial Day in Plainfield
For as far back as anyone alive today can remember, there has always been a Plainfield Memorial Day observance- complete with local veterans leading a parade of townspeople through the center of town and ending with a ceremony at the Hilltop Cemetery, followed by a 21 gun salute. Salute by cannon or artillery is a military tradition that originated in the 14th century. The 21-gun salute, commonly recognized by many nations, is the highest honor rendered. The custom stems from naval tradition, when a warship would signify its lack of hostile intent by firing its cannons out to sea until all ammunition was spent. The British navy developed the custom of a seven-gun salute because naval vessels typically had seven guns (and possibly also due to the number seven’s Biblical and mystical significance). Because greater quantities of gunpowder could be stored on dry land, forts could fire three rounds for every one fired at sea — hence the number 21. With the improvement of naval gunpowder, honors rendered at sea increased to 21, as well. The 21-gun salute eventually became the international standard. (https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Visit/Events-and-Ceremonies/Ceremonies/21-Gun-Salute)
The first known celebration of Memorial Day in Plainfield was held by the Grand Army of the Republic, Mountain Miller Post. In 1898, at a cost of $375, secured through the efforts of the Grand Army of the Republic, Mountain Miller Post 232, a monument to the soldiers from Plainfield who gave their lives in the Civil War, was erected in the Hilltop Cemetery.
The Grand Army of the Republic was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army (United States Army), Union Navy (U.S. Navy), and the Marines who served in the American Civil War. It was founded in 1866 in Springfield, Illinois, and grew to include hundreds of “posts” (local community units) across the nation (predominantly in the North, but also a few in the South and West). It was dissolved in 1956 at the death of its last member, Albert Woolson (1850–1956) of Duluth, Minnesota.
Longtime Plainfield resident, Sandy Morann, has many fond memories of Memorial Day celebrations from past years. She recalls that in the late 1950s through the 1970s, the Memorial Day celebrations were a three day affair. Children from the Plainfield School, which was located in what is now the Shaw Memorial Library, would hold plays, recite the Gettysburg Address and sing patriotic songs. The local 4-H would march in the parade with their horses and farm animals, along with the Northampton Sherriff’s Department “calvary” lead by Sheriff John Boyle. Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops from the surrounding towns would join in on the celebrations, lead by local veterans. Plainfield residents got together and created floats for the parade and everyone wore their red, white and blues. There were dinner celebrations galore, along with ceremonies at the Plainfield Congregational Church, and a talent show in the upstairs of the Town Hall. And the whole town would turn out for the famous ham, baked beans, cole slaw, and all the fixins’, followed by locally made pies, all donated by Plainfield residents.
It literally took a village to prepare and serve the dinner. Originally started by the Plainfield Grange, Sandy Morann remembers that most of the kids in town would help to serve the “family-style” meal. “We would all be excited when one guest in particular, would leave a quarter under his plate as a tip.” “That was big money back then!” The Grange would supply the ham and cole slaw, while Fred Tirrell would supply the baked beans. To this day, folks still talk about those baked beans of Fred’s and would ask for the recipe – he never would give it out – but rumor has it that they were B & M canned baked beans!!!! Regardless, they were enjoyed by all, with many coming back for seconds and thirds.
Thelma Pilgrim shared many of her photographs and memories of Memorial Days past. She recalls at time when there was three seatings of people for the dinner, with tables set both downstairs and upstairs in the Town Hall. Since she was a child, the Plainfield chapter of the Grange prepared the dinner, with Cindy Roberts and family dong much of the food preparations. All the kids in town helped out with setting tables and serving, but eventually the preparation of the dinner was taken over by the What-Nots, a group of Plainfield women, who starting during WWII, worked together to organize international dinners, lawn croquet games, held plant swaps, and supplied and wrapped the gifts that Santa brought all the children in Town. One What-Nots member, Sandy Powers remembers that the three seatings, at 11:20, 12:10 and 1:00, were always packed. “Some years we would have over 150 people show up for dinner.” “Everyone was there!” And after dinner everyone in attendance gathered for a march to the Hilltop Cemetery, lead by veterans and the Mohawk High School marching band. Once at the cemetery, children would lay lilacs on all the veteran’s graves, a reading and prayer was said at the GAR Civil War Memorial, a 21-gun salute was given, followed by an always emotional rendition of taps, with a single bugle answering back from the distant hills.
Unfortunately, over the years, attendance has dwindled. Today folks can’t seem to find the time, members are aging, and the enthusiasm for Plainfield’s one hundred plus years of Memorial Day celebrations seemed lost. The Grange dissolved and the What-Nots were rightly overwhelmed with the amount of work involved.
But today the baton has been passed to the members of the Plainfield Historical Society, who, since 2010, along with a diligent group of volunteers, have been preparing and serving the famous ham and dinner. While Fred Tirrell may not be around to serve his famous beans, rest assured, Lori Austin still uses his “secret” recipe! There is generally one seating of about 70 people, and while local, home-baked pies are still served, there is now a Pie Auction held at the end of the dinner, with auctioneer, Dario Coletta really pumping up the crowd to raise those bids! The auction has been known to get quite competitive, with some pies selling for over $50! All the monies raised is used to off-set the cost of the dinner and to support the Plainfield Historical Society.
The dinner is held at the Town Hall at noon and a donation hat is passed. Immediately after dinner, the parade still marches on. Lead by local veterans, there is still a march to the Hilltop Cemetery, with many of the townspeople following behind. Local musicians join in the parade, and their is still the occasional horse rider and D.J. Clary usually brings along one of his oxen team. All in attendance follow our veterans to the Hilltop Cemetery where children still wander the cemetery which is always covered with pink phlox, laying lilacs on all the veteran’s graves. There is still the solemn reading of the Civil War Memorial dedication, followed by a 21-gun salute, and the goosebumps raising taps is played, echoing across the fields.
Because of Covid-19, the Memorial Day dinner has been cancelled for the years 2020 and 2021, but a small service was still held by a group of our local veterans. The Plainfield Historical Society thanks all those who have served our country and honors all who have given the ultimate sacrifice.
Memorial Day in Plainfield: Up with a Twist by Pleun Clara Bouricius | Valley Advocate, Jun 1, 2009
Some memories of Plainfield’s Memorial Day celebration over the years. Photographs courtesy of the Plainfield Historical Society, Elaine Holder, Sandy Powers, and Lori Austin.