Memorial Day in Camillus, NY

There is evidence, our parade dates back much further than many of us believed. Memorial Day or Decoration Day, as originally proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic*, was first observed on 30 May 1868 when 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 of the 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 honoring all Americans who die fighting in any war.

Locally, in an article from the May 26, 1905 edition of the Camillus Enterprise, a Memorial Day General Order was issued by Col. 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 you will see being re-enacted) 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 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 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.

After WW II

Fast forward through two World Wars to 1946 when local American Legion and VFW Posts, along with a patriotic, thankful community, wanted to remember their war-dead. A former musical 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 and longest 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 weekends. 

 

The Parade Today

The Observance of Memorial Day is much more than the annual parade through the Village.  It's really an on-going 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 way of life.

The Memorial Day Committee holds its first formal meeting each year in January, where the discussions begin about the theme, selecting a grand marshal and who the parade will be dedicated to. Fund raising is a key issue as the parade and other activities are not an inexpensive proposition.  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 handed out to children are also placed on veterans' graves in local cemetery's along with other expenses, must be covered and would not be possible without the incredible generosity of local businesses and individuals each year.  Once again this year the names of those business donors will be published for all to see and appreciate.

Coordinated by Committee Secretary Ann Eckert, two other high profile fundraisers are the “Be a Star-Buy a Star” program where individuals and organizations can purchase a hand painted wooden star in memory of a loved one which is placed on a display in front of the town hall and then entered in the parade as a float.  Stars cost $10 and are available by mailing a check made out to Camillus Parade and the name to:  Be a Star, PO Box 243, Camillus, NY 13031.  Another is the newer “Buy a Flag” program where for $1; one may purchase a paper “flag” at area merchants, and writing your name on the bottom.   They are then displayed by the merchant for all to see.  Look for them in late April at several area locations.

Putting it all together

Ever wonder how it all comes together at the top of the hill? After all of the hard work put forth by the committee, in the space of less than 90 minutes, participants descend upon upper Genesee St, seemingly all at once. It's then all in the hands of Parade Director Jeff Phoenix, who for over 30 years has been making a parade out of chaos. 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, Ann Eckert and their crew, masterfully make it all happen every year.  Jeff always follows our own famous WGHS Senior Marching Band at the end of the parade on his Honda, wearing his signature red, white and blue shirt and "doo-rag".  Be sure to watch for him this year and give him a cheer...he has earned it!

Other events:

Of other interest are Memorial ceremonies at Gillie Lake Veteran’s Memorial Park on Sarurday May, 25th at 10:00 am and the morning of the parade, at 7:30 am,  a similar service is held at Camillus Town Hall which includes police, fire fighters, WAVES, explorer posts and others, along with a reading of “In Flanders Fields”.  The public is encouraged to attend, these are all memorable events.

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."

Parade timeline:

Prior to the Parade start, a morning wreath laying ceremony is held at the Camillus Town Hall where Police, Fire, Emergency, American Legion/VFW members and town dignitaries assemble to honor the day beginning at 7:15 AM including a salute to the flag and Taps by buglers from WGHS marching band.  The public is encouraged to attend.  The Parade itself begins with similar ceremonies in the Village at the Camillus Kayak Shop, the official reviewing stand, at 9:30.

 

Future of the Parade

Don Laxton, the current Parade Chairman and Vietnam Era Vet says, “we need more local veterans to step up to the plate and become involved by joining the American Legion or VFW.”  “There is an entire generation of veterans who are missing from the ranks of these service organizations.  We need those men and women to begin taking our places so events like Memorial and Veterans Day Parades and ceremonies will endure.”  Local veterans can learn more on Post 1540’s webpage: www.americanlegionpost1540.org or on Facebook pages American Legion Post 1540 and Camillus Memorial Day Parade.   Groups who want to participate may email camillusparade@gmail.com