"Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment day;
Under the blossoms the Blue;
Under the garlands the Gray."
Memorial Day originated after the Civil War to honor the dead of both the North and the South by decorating the graves of the fallen with the flowers of spring. It was originally called Decoration Day, and for communities in the St. Croix Valley which had suffered such grievous losses during the Civil War, Decoration Day was as significant a holiday as the 4th of July. We thought it appropriate to commemorate the day with a few photos of some past Memorial Days.
The oldest photograph we have of a Memorial Day celebration in Calais is circa 1890. Ashley St. Clair, a Civil War veteran, is shown above speaking in Calais’ Memorial Park with the Soldier’s monument at his back. While we cannot see the crowd St. Clair is addressing it was almost certainly substantial as hundreds of Calais residents were still alive who had lost a relative or friend in the Civil War. Washington County had one of the highest enlistment and casualty rates per capita of any county in the country in the war. The high enlistment rate was partly due to New Brunswickers enlisting in Calais to fight for the Union.
The Soldier’s Monument was the focus of Decoration Day for many decades, and later a bandstand was erected in the park so the speakers and dignitaries had a more elevated platform from which to address the large crowds.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were still dozens of local Civil War veterans participating in the ceremonies. Patriotic speeches and moving remarks by the survivors of the Civil War were followed by a more solemn ceremony at the Calais cemetery.
The 1915 photo above shows an older Ashley St Clair at the cemetery making preparatory remarks to the few surviving veterans of the Civil War before laying a wreath on the grave of a fallen comrade. A band is playing in the background. Ned Lamb describes the scene in a 1940’s article he wrote for the Calais Advertiser:
"Every year they're marching slower, Every year they're stooping lower,
Every year the lilting music stirs the hearts of older men.
Every year the flags above them
Seem to bond and bless and love them,
As if grieving for the future when they'll never march again."
And that day came on Memorial Day 1915 when the Joel A. Haycock Post could only get five men together to carry out the services that they had read for so many years. Sewell Quimby, then of Milltown; our old teacher, Ashley St. Clair was chaplain; Burnham Redding, of Milltown; Fred Cochran, who had but one leg, of Calais; and a Red Beach man stood at the grave of Samuel Howe that dark and rainy day.
In the Memorial Day parade 1919 Civil War, vets still held the place of honor although they were too old to march the entire parade route and rode in Calais’s finest cars instead. According to Frank Beckett who was born during the Civil War:
On Memorial Day the G.A.R. was strong and the Civil War Veterans were the bone of the parade that featured fire carts, floats, bands, fraternal organizations, clowns, etc. and marched from Church St. to North St. to Main as far as the International Bridge where flowers were thrown in the St.Croix river in memory of the lost sailors, then from the Bridge to the Memorial Park where a prominent citizen made a speech, a high school student recited the Gettysburg Address before marching on to the cemetery for the final services. The day before, ladies had gathered at the G.A.R. Hall and fashioned wreaths from fir, apple and cherry blossoms, lilacs and flowers that the boys brought in and later put wreaths on the grave of each soldier. A supper for the workers was put on at the hall.
Even with the passing of the Civil War veterans and intervention of “The Great War”, Memorial Day remained a very significant day of remembrance in the St. Croix Valley.
In 1931, the Calais Band still played at Memorial Park while speeches rang out from the bandstand and hundreds paid tribute to those lost in the country’s wars.
Folks lined the streets to watch the parade and listen to the bands…
… some from St. Stephen, as were many of the marchers. The parade route was a long one, through Calais to Water Street in St. Stephen and back again to South Street and the cemetery.
In 1931 the ceremonies ended at the Calais Cemetery just as they had since the late 1860s.
The photos above show the 1942 Memorial Day parade on the last leg of a long marching day – heading up South Street to the cemetery.
After the Second World War the Calais National Guard unit marched in force in Memorial Day parades and the salutes from their rifles at the cemetery could be heard throughout the four towns.
In addition to the parades and speeches at places like the Memorial Park, there were also smaller ceremonies at the dozens of Honor Rolls in the small towns and villages of the St Croix Valley. The 1956 ceremony at the Milltown Maine Honor Roll was typical and while Memorial Day celebrations today are not as large they continue in the same tradition and spirit as those of a century ago.