The origins of Perkasie’s Memorial Day (or Decoration Day) traditions

The occasion of Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was once called, is nearly as old as Perkasie Borough itself. While the holiday as evolved over time, its importance remains with us as a solemn reminder of the price paid for our freedoms.

Informal ceremonies to honor the war dead started regionally in America toward the end of the Civil War. Initially called Decoration Day, people made sure the graves of Union and Confederate participants were decorated with flowers on May 30 each year. That was the most-observed date for Memorial Day until 1971, when a federal act moved the federal holiday to the last Monday in May. (Not all states observed the date change and there is still some controversy about it.)

1898parade0006

This 1899 photo is likely the annual Decoration Day parade, based on newspaper accounts

In Perkasie, the terms “Decoration Day” and “Memorial Day” were used interchangeably starting in the 1890s into the early 1940s, although the Grand Army of the Republic (or G.A.R.) Civil War veterans group preferred Memorial Day as the official name. The G.A.R. leadership grew concerned in the 1890s that the playing of games (i.e., baseball) took away from the solemn purpose of the holiday.

By that point, most Upper Bucks County towns had morning parade ceremonies that included the laying of flowers and singing of hymns at gravesides, with a marching band accompanying the group. After a public memorial service that mixed patriotism and faith, baseball games promptly started.

The first major Decoration Day parade in Perkasie appears to have occurred on May 30, 1892. The grand parade marked three big developments in town: the official opening of a new amusement park (Menlo Park), the placement of the cornerstone for Perkasie’s new school (today known as the Chalkboard Apartments) and the unofficial ceremony for the town’s new train depot. An estimated 5,000 people were at Menlo Park’s opening, which included a carousel. The parade featured a half-mile-long procession of horse carriages decorated with buntings.

In 1899, another major parade occurred just a few weeks after the merger of Perkasie Borough and the village of Benjamin. The procession started at 8 a.m. at Saint Andrew’s Union Church in South Perkasie, and proceeded to cemeteries in Sellersville and Perkasie. The afternoon and evening festivities were at Menlo Park, which were marred by a brawl during the annual Perkasie-Sellersville baseball game.

By 1905, the local tradition became more formalized, with the parade starting on Market Street in Perkasie, heading to local schools were all the students joined the parade, which then visited local cemeteries. The parade concluded at the large auditorium at the Perkasie Park Camp-Meeting, where a local G.A.R. member, and later a student honored with the privilege, recited Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The memorial service included group renditions of “America” and the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

GAR post

The last three Perkasie G.A.R. members in 1929

During the early 1920s, the local Hartzell-Crouthamel American Legion post took over the parade’s organization, and with the exception of a three-year period during World War 11, the ceremony’s format remained the same, with the procession starting in Perkasie, visiting gravesites, and ending at the Perkasie Park auditorium. The last recorded Perkasie Park ceremony was on May 30, 1949.

In 1950, the Perkasie parade format changed to a procession within town and a ceremony at the Legion hall on Sixth Street. Separate ceremonies were held at churches and at gravesides, with the parade in Perkasie and Sellersville involving the local Legion posts. The parade has continued in some version of that format since the 1950s.

perkasieparkprogram

The 1939 Memorial Day program

Today, unusual circumstances in 2020 led to a drive-though version of the annual Memorial Day ceremony. It is important that the tradition continues and we also may want to recall its origins as Decoration Day and the Gettysburg Address’ importance to the ceremony:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

%d bloggers like this: