"DECORATION DAY"

A Memory by Mildred Filbrun Heck  

It was called “Decoration Day” by everyone in our Ohio farm community in the 1920s.  Not until I was through high school and working in Dayton was I reminded that this late May holiday was properly called “Memorial Day”.

Decoration Day was an important day to country families for on this day we decorated the graves of our departed family members with flowers.  We used our homegrown flowers – never did we even think of stopping at commercial greenhouses to buy flowers for our cemetery visits.  Plastic and silk flowers weren’t known then either – and wouldn’t have been considered proper even if they had been available.

Weeks before Decoration Day we carefully watched our growing flowers and shrubs and worried if they would be ready.  If the weather were too warm, the flowers would be in full bloom far too soon.  If the days of late May were too cold, the flowers would not be ready for cutting.  I recall a few years when May was hot and the flowers were heading for an early bloom.  We cut buckets of them days ahead to store in our dark, cold, sawdust insulated icehouse.  Other years, when spring was too cold, we cut the budding shrubs and flowers and put them in warm water in our summer kitchen to force blooms.

There were not a great variety of plants and shrubs around the farmhouses in those days.  Nor was there the time or money to spend cultivating those plants that wouldn’t grow and thrive easily.  Some of the lovely, old-fashioned plants we counted on were lilac, spirea, forsythia, pussy willow, striped grasses, small bush roses and “snow balls” (flowering viburnum).  But the favorite old standbys were iris and peonies.

On the evening before Decoration Day the whole family got busy cutting blooms.  We used a colorful mixture for each arrangement – just large enough to fit nicely into the quart jars containers.  Then we tied each bunch together with a bit of string and put them in buckets and foot tubs of cold water.

The next morning we finished our farm chores as early as possible.  Now the big job was to get all those buckets, tubs and jars – and the whole family – into our old Ford car.  The baskets of old cracked and chipped canning jars were fastened on the running boards.  The flowers were squeezed into the trunk of the car with the lid left open to keep them from being mashed.  An old sheet was loosely anchored over the flowers to keep the flowers from being damaged by the wind.  Our family piled inside the car and we kids steadied gallon stone jugs of cold tea between our feet.  Our mother held the picnic basket on her lap.

Off we went to the New Carlisle Cemetery where Filbrun family members were buried.  It was considered necessary to arrive early to find a shady parking place near the only water pump in the cemetery.  But an early arrival also showed good planning and pride to our neighbors and other family members.  (It was like being the first in your neighborhood to get your laundry flapping on the clothesline on Monday morning.)

We kids ran to the water pump for buckets of water, quickly filled all the jars and placed a bunch of flowers in each one.  We all helped to carry the arrangements around the cemetery, anchoring the jars in the soil on the proper graves.  We met lots of relatives and neighbors and our folks spent much time chatting and catching up on the family news as they trimmed grass or pulled weeds and generally tidied grave-sites.  As we moved around the cemetery we saw graves unkempt and barren of flowers.  We overhead the adults say the families of those deceased relatives were uncaring or disrespectful of their dead.  Decoration Day was taken seriously in those days.

It had been a long time since our early breakfast and we kids were starved.  We gathered at the car where we sat on the grass or on the running board of the car and ate sandwiches of pimento cheese and peanut butter, hard-boiled eggs, cookies and drank our cold tea from the stone jugs.

In the early afternoon a band could be heard playing in the distance.  We excitedly watched for the Decoration Day Parade to make its slow way the one-half mile from New Carlisle to the cemetery.  The band was the most exciting part of the day for we kids because what followed seemed to us as just dull, long-winded speeches by men in ill-fitting Army uniforms.

The adults were done chatting and visiting.  The flowers were all placed on the proper graves.  The picnic basket was empty.  We kids were tired and bored.  Our half-hearted attempts at hide-and-seek and tag among the grave markers had been quickly discouraged by disapproving adults.  We climbed into the car and headed home where we quickly kicked off our shoes, got into our old clothes and ran through the cooling grass of a late spring afternoon.

There at home we were free to be ourselves again and, though we didn’t consciously think about it, we were happy just to be alive and kicking.  This was the perfect end to our busy Decoration Day.

- This story has been edited by Mrs. Heck’s brother, William S. Filbrun -


"Decoration Day in the 1920's" - Mildred Filbrun Heck - all rights reserved.  Permission to reproduce it or any part thereof must be obtained from the filbrun.com webmaster.

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