by Chris Clemens
Known as the Birthplace of Memorial Day, Waterloo, New York in Seneca County always has a long list of festivities to help celebrate the historic holiday. With parades, Civil War reenactments, decoration processions, an arts-and-crafts festival and food tents among the features–the celebration is packed with something that everyone will be able to find enjoyment in. For more about the town’s events, checkout their website here.
Henry C. Welles was born in Connecticut, but as a child his family relocated to Waterloo, New York, right in the heart of the Finger Lakes. As an adult, Welles became the local druggist for Waterloo and got involved in some politics, too. But, the most noteworthy moment of his entire life came in the summer of 1865 when he mentioned an off-the-cuff idea to some friends. Welles suggested that a day be set aside specifically to honor the fallen soldiers who died while battling in the Civil War. With support from others, the crew celebrated the very first Memorial Day on May 5, 1866.
Now, I should point out that there is some discrepancy about whether or not this celebration was indeed the very first Memorial Day ever. There are a couple other towns throughout the United States that claim traditions that may have begat the idea of Memorial Day. The concept of a “Decoration Day” hails back to before the ending of the Civil War, and the concept of memorializing a soldier’s internment certainly dates back even further. Though the history of decorating the resting place of a soldier that lost their life in battle is a winding, complex history, it was President Lyndon B. Johnson that made the final call. On May 26, 1966 he signed a presidential proclamation that solidified Welles’ place in history and made Waterloo, New York the official Birthplace of Memorial Day.
Celebrate Memorial Day in Waterloo
Each Memorial Day weekend, the Village of Waterloo is overrun with red, white, and blue celebrations.
History buffs will appreciate the Civil War reenactments with cannon firing and historical figures giving speeches. The National Memorial Day Museum right on Main Street has a really wonderful collection of local history, and outlines the story of Henry Welles and the others who were involved in making that first Memorial Day happen.
An arts and crafts festival features local vendors peddling wares all the way from those ridiculously popular fidget spinners to hand made jewelry. What’s more, I was pretty excited to stumble upon a coffee roaster I wasn’t aware of! Cobblestone Coffee Roasters operates right out of Waterloo and 10% of their proceeds are donated to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. I also managed to sneak in the first Italian sausage with peppers and onions of the season–which means summer has officially begun.
Most towns of course celebrate Memorial Day during the weekend attached to the observed holiday the last Monday in May each year, but Waterloo always goes one step further holds ceremonies on May 30th, too. If you missed out on the weekend festivities and still want to be part of the celebration, there’s still time to catch the wrap-up parade and the decoration ceremonies in each of the local cemeteries!
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens