Memorial Day in Camillus, New York
There is evidence, our parade dates back much further than many of us believed. Memorial Day or Decoration Day, as originally proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic*, was first observed on May 30, 1868. Flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. (*The GAR was an early forerunner of the VFW and American Legion)
The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890, Memorial Day was recognized by all northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I, when the holiday changed from just honoring those who died fighting in the Civil War to all Americans who die fighting in all wars.
Locally, in an article from the May 26, 1905 edition of the Camillus Enterprise, a Memorial Day General Order was issued by Colonel Henry Berhans of the GAR which stated "May 30, Memorial Day is now at hand. That day which above all others recalls sorrowful, yet sacred, memories, and yet inspires brightest hopes, that day dear to the heart of every veteran and honored and revered by every true and loyal American." The article goes on to describe Memorial Day in Camillus stating, "complete arrangements have been made for observing the day in Camillus. Previous to the services at ten o'clock in the Baptist church, the veterans and children will assemble at the village hall at 9 o'clock sharp. The children will bring with them flowers made into small bouquets to be used after the services for decoration which continues at the beginning of our parade today. The procession will form at the village hall and march to the church, escorted by the Camillus Cadets and led by the cornet band." A photo, on file with the Historical Society, depicts either this, or a similar band, marching on the dirt Main Street in Camillus in 1908 on Memorial Day.
We know from the records and living witnesses that the last surviving Civil War veteran from Camillus, Oliver Bates, was an annual speaker at the Memorial Day exercises in the Village for twelve years. Only his last year of life put an end to his annual address. He was 90 years old when he passed away in 1935. He is buried in Maplewood Cemetery.
From this we know with some certainty that a "parade" or at least a procession was part of Memorial Day observances in Camillus dating back as early as 1905 and most likely much earlier than that.
Fast forward through two world wars to 1946 when local American Legion and VFW posts, along with a patriotic and grateful community, wanted to remember their dead. A former band director at West Genesee, Ed Case, was also "instrumental" in its beginning. According to long time former Parade Chairman, Ed Fletcher, "Case was a one-man band." So began the parade as we know it today, growing into one of the largest parades in the county.
Over the years, committees of veterans and community leaders such as Max Lell, who served from the beginning for 63 years , George Burke, Morris Raichlin, Bill Bush, Dick Case, Bones O’Hara, Ken Osborne, Bill Schriver, Clyde Ohl, George Curry, Roy Jones, Dave Gross, Rocco Pirro, Larry Fleming, Bill Scriver, Vincent Scaravillo, Harvey “Bud” Stone, Bob Fitzgerald, Max Werth, Martin Renaldo, Peter Zulinke, Hank & Nancy Polech, Larry Gillette, Ron Clare, Richard & Margaret Fitzgerald, George Longmuir, John Moras, Frank Panzino, Dave Reamsnyder, Jim Sganga, Sam Wolcott, Mary Lou Preske who served as Secretary for many years until recently retiring, Paula Artese, Mary Lou and Joseph Weinberger, Jr., Fred Schug, Jr., James Santamour, Franklin Tigh, Joe & Marie McClusky, Bill Cristman, Barry Copeland, Tom Kehoskie, Bob Cudworth, Brian Kesel, C. John Henderson, Jack Daley, June Wilkinson, Dick Lyons, Rich Homeyer, Mike Stachnik, Bob Feyl, Mark Pigula, Mark & Ann Eckert, Eric Bacon, Cindy Wilson, Chris Cesta, Kathy Kitt, Jeff Phoenix, Cheryl Rice, Bob Burns, Dick Babcock, Gordon Storrings, Bernie Bunce and of course, for over 40 years, Ed & Pat Fletcher. These and so many others have continued faithfully to shepherd the Parade and other activities over the Memorial Day Weekend.
The Parade Today
The Observance of Memorial Day is much more than the annual parade through the Village. It's really an ongoing labor of love for those who help to plan and execute the event each year. Under the auspices of the Camillus American Legion Knifetown Post 1540 and VFW Post 8664 along with community volunteer advisors and assistance from the Town and Village of Camillus, Memorial Day Weekend defines our love of country and remembrance of those who have made the ultimate sacrifices in order to preserve our freedom.
The Memorial Day Committee holds its first formal meeting each year in September, where the discussions begin about the theme, grand marshal and dedication. Fundraising is a key issue as the parade and other activities are an expensive endeavor. Reliance on the generosity of local businesses and individuals is what makes everything possible. Bands, other than WG marching band, all charge a fee. Flags are handed out to children at the parade; they are also placed on veterans' graves in local cemeteries. Administration expenses must also be covered.
We have begun two other high profile fundraisers. One is the Be a Star/Buy a Star program where individuals and organizations can donate on behalf of themselves or in memory of a loved one. Names will be placed on wooden stars and displayed in front of the Camillus Town Hall on West Genesee St. and the display will then be included as a float in the parade. Another fundraiser is the Buy a Flag program. Area merchants display flags with names written on the bottom; this is $1/flag and are available in April at numerous locations.
Putting it all together
Ever wonder how it all comes together? After all of the hard work put forth by the committee, in the space of less than 90 minutes, participants arrive en masse to begin lineup. It's then all in the hands of Parade Director, Jeff Phoenix who, for over 30 years has been skillfully organizing the multitude of participants while wearing his signature red, white and blue shirt and "doo-rag". It's a daunting job--organizing, placing and directing everything from lines of fire trucks, to horses to hundreds of kids and other marchers. Jeff along with his assistants (Cheryl Rice and Ann Eckert) and their team of volunteers masterfully make it all happen every year.
Please see our website page listing days and times of other Memorial Day Weekend ceremonies at Gillie Lake, the Camillus Town Hall, prior to the start of the parade in the Village of Camillus and following the parade at Maplewood Cemetery.
The Message Comes Through
Columnist Mario Rossi wrote in the June 6, 1977 edition of the Syracuse Herald Journal, "Everything seems to be changing in this fast-moving, volatile age of ours, but some traditions manage to continue, thank heavens, by transmitting a sentiment that is pure Americana and so, as reassuring as it is enjoyable, I came to this conclusion in Camillus on Memorial Day," Rossi continued, "With the opening of the program, the real message of the event begins to come through: This is unabashed patriotism, as genuine as it is sentimental-homage to our country and Old Glory, tribute to the fallen heroes of battlefields. rededication to the American ideal." "Let others forget the past, if they will; let them forget history...but not i this place. They do not pander here to the currently popular notion that a nation is only worth the hand-out it can give you; they hold to the theory that devotion to country is an all-pervasive thing akin to love. That is the gratifying reality that prevails in today's sight and sound. Somehow, the old values do survive, and if here in Camillus, perhaps in other communities across the land. I see this town as a microcosm of Heartland USA."
Future of the Parade
We encourage veterans as well as members of the local community to become members of our committee. Veterans and community volunteers will be needed to continue this long-running parade tradition.