JAMESTOWN – “The first official Decoration Day in 1868…went all but unreported by the local newspapers,” said Sam Genco, Assistant Superintendant of Jamestown’s Lake View Cemetery and avid local historian. “Few groups or individuals participated,” he explained, “just a few local school children, led by Professor Samuel G. Love, who decorated the soldiers’ graves with flowers on Monument Hill in Lake View Cemetery.”
Monday, May 28, 2012, Decoration Day, now better known as Memorial Day, will be quite different from the first one, highlighting many popular, three-day-weekend celebrations across Chautauqua County with well attended parades and festivities.
Remembering fallen soldiers, however, is not a new idea. The soldiers of ancient Roman set aside part of their regular pay into a funeral account to pay for a final, solemn commemoration service after their death, whether in battle or at home, a ritual meal for their comrades and family and for their burial expenses. A Roman centurion, a commander over as many as 100 men, might have even set aside enough money to have a mausoleum built for himself.
The oldest war commemorated by a gravesite in the Lake View Cemetery, according to the Fenton History Center’s Director, Joni Blackman, is the grave of Col. Henry Baker who fought in the United States’ Second War of Independence, more commonly called The War of 1812. Jamestown’s Baker Park and Baker Street are his best known local remembrances. Col. Baker’s reward for distinguished military service was a warrant from the U.S. government to obtain a free tract of land far away in the western wilderness of Illinois.
Baker swapped his warrant for a mere $10 worth of plug tobacco which he obtained from another historic local figure, Dr. Eliel T. Foote, saying, “Illinois is entirely too far from the sunrise.” He stayed in Jamestown instead and became a successful cobbler, logger and sawmill operator.
One Baker family descendent of Col. Henry and Maria Baker still lives in Chautauqua County. The current Mr. Baker will be in attendance at a special Memorial Day observance on Wednesday, May 30, which will convene at the Lake View Cemetery office at 6:00 p.m. as part of the Fenton’s “Fighting for the Flag: Honoring 1812 Veterans” program.
The region’s earliest military graves were planted on Monument Hill in Lake View Cemetery, according to Genco. The high ground was dedicated to pre-WW I veterans. A total of 113 veterans are buried there, completing the site with graves representing the Revolutionary, Civil and Spanish-American wars.
Memorial Day 1923 was the occasion for the dedication of Soldier’s Circle at Lake View Cemetery, a newer, more spacious area for burials of deceased veterans of later conflicts. Jamestown native, Major General Charles Justin Bailey, dedicated the site. General Bailey, Commander of the 81st Division of the American Expeditionary Forces, was one of the most decorated soldiers of WW I. Bailey had been awarded the French Legion of Honor, the Croix de Guerre, Distinguished Service Award and from Belgium, the Order of Leopold. One thousand thirty four burials have now been settled at Soldier’s Circle and consideration is now being made for a possible additional site to honor future war veterans.
In 1927, the Ira Lou Spring American Legion Post dedicated a monument of two massive Quincy granite bases, all four sides of which are faced with bronze plates embossed with the names of more than 100 Jamestown natives who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Commander Stewart B. Myers presided over the dedication ceremony. Deceased veterans buried in Soldiers’ Circle are beneficiaries of a gift by Lake View Cemetery of the plot of ground, at no charge to the veteran’s family. The cost of a memorial and the opening of the ground are the only expenses born by the family.
In the earliest Memorial Day celebrations in Jamestown and the surrounding municipalities in Chautauqua County, Civil War veterans always marched on foot in the parades. They were also joined, in Jamestown, by the 13th Separate Company (The Fenton Guards), Post James M. Brown (Grand Army of the Republic), Samuel M. Porter Camp, Spanish War Veterans and many others. In the late 1800s and early 1900s a horse drawn wagon filled with freshly cut flowers for decorating the graves was always a part of the procession.
According to Sam Genco, one woman, Leonora Winchester, widow of Civil War Veteran Charles Winchester, made boutonnieres for all the veterans and others to wear each year until her death in 1919.
The last Civil War veteran to die in the area was reported to be Samuel L. Willard, a veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg and many other conflicts in the war. He died in 1939 and was remembered for having attended 55 consecutive Memorial Day celebrations in Jamestown. The last Spanish War veteran was William O. Isaacson who died at the age of 95 in 1972.
The Jamestown Memorial Day Parade, beginning at 10:00 a.m., Monday, May 28 at Baker Park on 4th Street, will end with a memorial ceremony at Soldier’s Circle in Lake View Cemetery. At least nine other towns in Chautauqua County also plan Memorial Day parades and celebrations.
Editors Note: Special thanks to Sam Genco and Joni Blackman for access to invaluable historical archives relating to Jamestown and the commitment of local citizens to honor and commemorate the region’s soldiers.