Decoration Day 1900–Guthrie Center, Iowa

Originally called Decoration Day, it was set aside especially to remember those who died in battle.  Shortly after the Civil War, the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic declared May 30 as a day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.”

Ever since, towns have held solemn ceremonies to remember the ones who paid the ultimate sacrifice. That’s why you’ll see so many American flags in cemeteries these days. Some hold a ceremony right in the cemetery.

Most Sacred Day

Clipping from The Guthrian, May 31, 1900:

“May 30th, the most sacred day to the American people, a day when all thoughts are of the things past and gone; a day of memories that soften the heart and dim the eyes; a day when a patriotic and grateful people pay tribute and render due homage to the men that by their valor, heroism and sacrifice made it possible for us to enjoy the heritage of freedom and liberty over this broad land.

“At ten o’clock A.M. the procession headed by Guthrie Center Cadets and the Military Band, followed by members of the G.A.R., civic societies, and citizens in carriages, proceeded to the cemetery where each grave of their comrades was strewn with flowers. After this ceremony was performed the procession returned to town and disbanded for dinner.

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Photo thanks to Lisa Campbell McCrorey.

“At one thirty P.M. the citizens assembled at the opera house which had been beautifully decorated to finish the ceremonies of the day. After singing by the glee club, D. Brown, the orator of the day delivered an eloquent and patriotic address, which was replete with lofty thoughts that inspired his hearers with a deeper patriotism and love of country.

“At the conclusion of his speech a flag drill was presented to a group of school girls, who in their evolutions produced a beautiful and bewildering effect. When the benediction was pronounced the memorial service of 1900 had gone into history.

“It was remarked by many that never before in Guthrie Center had there been so many in attendance, and in taking part in the ceremonies of the day. This evidence of the interest of our citizens take in observance of this day gives us assurance of the perpetuity of this day as the great day of the years.”

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The mention of an opera house in Guthrie Center sent me on a “rabbit trail.” I don’t remember anything about an opera house there. But the History of Guthrie and Adair Counties, Iowa, published in 1884, tells about it on page 587:

“Motz opera house, one of the finest amusement halls in Western Iowa, was commenced in June, 1881, but was not completed until the following spring. It occupies the entire second story of the Motz opera block, a very fine brick building, 60x 86 feet.

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1881 Opera House, 1909. Thanks to Kristine Jorgensen.

“It has a superior audience room finished with taste, with a large well arranged and finely lighted stage, which is 22 X 60’. This stage is a fine one, and the enterprising proprietor, John E. Motz, is equipping it with drop-curtains, scenery and all the needful accessories for a first-class theatre.

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Inside the Opera House. Thanks to Kristine Jorgensen.

“The audience room will comfortably seat some nine hundred people, and being a good-high ceiling the room does not lack ventilation. The block is the best building in the county, and was erected at a cost of over $20,000, an example of public spirit that should have many imitators.”

Leora Goff in the 1900 Decoration Day Ceremony

I don’t know whether my grandmother, Laura Goff, age 9, attended the oration in the afternoon, but I bet her father, M. S. “Sherd” Goff did. She probably stayed home with her mother, who would give birth again in August, to take care of her five younger siblings.

But that morning, Leora was one of about twenty young girls who took part in the ceremony at the cemetery. Veterans of the Civil and Spanish American Wars decorated a hay rack wagon, she remembered, for the 1900 Decoration Day procession. A team of Palomino horses pulled the wagon to the cemetery.

The girls, dressed in white–with red, white, and blue sashes over their shoulders–rode on the wagon. The veterans marched behind. At the cemetery, a girl in white accompanied a veteran in uniform to lay flowers on soldiers’ graves in Guthrie Center, Iowa.

We still need to remember on Memorial Day weekend the ones who gave their lives in service to our country.

14 comments

  1. Love the description of an earlier time. I remember reading in a Maud Hart Lovelace children’s book from the early 20th century that white pompom flowers were the appropriate thing for Civil War veterans to wear on their uniforms and place on their comrades’ graves. (I never verified that lovely story.) It was set in Minnesota, 1912.

    • Thank you, Pat! I didn’t discover the dear Lovelace books until I was an adult. Now that I have a two-year-old granddaughter, I should be collecting those for her, shouldn’t I?

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