The author covers the towns of Bethlehem, Guilderland, New Scotland and surrounding areas for The Spotlight.
Growing up, most of us let out a cumulative groan as Memorial Day approached.
It wasn’t that my peers and I didn’t want to honor our veterans and not because we didn’t understand the day was important. It was more because of the hoopla that surrounded the town at the end of each May.
I grew up in Waterloo, a small town in western New York, and it holds a special place in American history. Most people don’t know our town is the birthplace of Memorial Day. It was eventually made official in 1966, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a federal proclamation.
Since few people knew about Waterloo’s one major claim to fame, a committee made up of local business and community leaders was formed in 1999 to make sure the holiday was more easily associated with the town. The committee came up with “Celebrate Commemorate,” an annual five-day event that occurs Thursday through Monday. An extra day is added if May 30 — the first collective observance date of Memorial Day — isn’t included in the weekend.
What followed was a giant fair with reenactments, guided historical tours and fireworks leading thousands to converge on the town each year. This was good for business, but not necessarily fun for some locals who missed having just a small, somber parade and observances held at local cemeteries.
As the event grew bigger, we children were pressured to write essays, perform in historical skits and work in booths to fundraise for local organizations. There was even a year when students spent an entire day creating and coloring American Flags, which were then placed in windows all over Waterloo in an attempt to land a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the village with the most American flags. We achieved our goal with 25,898 flags.