How an Elgin group has planned Memorial Day for 125 years
This year's Memorial Day service at Elgin's Bluff City Cemetery will differ from previous years.
Instead of the usual dignitary or veteran as a keynote speaker, the Elgin Patriotic Memorial Association, which has planned the city's programs for the past 125 years, will use the time to recognize its own organization's milestone and reflect on Memorial Days of the past.
"We're honored to be commemorating our 125th anniversary of planning Elgin's Memorial programs," said Frank De Loncker Jr., the current president. "Our attendance has grown considerably in recent years and we're very proud of what we've done. We're especially pleased that we were awarded an Elgin Image Award this year for what the Elgin Image Commission called '125 years of image excellence.'"
How it began
The story of the Elgin Patriotic Memorial Association isn't just one of longevity. The group's story is also one of evolution and change. There is one constant officials say has been a focus throughout the years -- that of providing a meaningful tribute each year to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms.
Elgin's first Memorial Day observance dates back to 1868. Organized by the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans' organization, the event was held in Elgin Cemetery, now the site of Channing Memorial Elementary School on the city's near east side,
The service, attended by more than 2,000 people, one-third of the community, was held at a time when the city's famous Elgin National Watch Company was just entering its first full year of production.
"Upon this place where we now stand will be a memorial crowning the efforts of those who gave their lives fighting for our country," noted a Methodist minister who was Elgin's first Memorial Day speaker.
The memorial would become a reality in 1876 when a 27-foot-tall spire costing $3,000 was dedicated at the cemetery.
The G.A.R. continued to plan the city's observances in the years ahead. In 1892, the aging Union veterans decided a new group was needed to carry on the task and gathered together a variety of community groups to discuss plans for a new organization.
Invited to the meeting were the Ancient Order of United Workmen, Daughters of the Tabernacle, Elgin German Benevolent Society, German Soldiers, Elgin Turners, Fortnightly Club, Illinois National Guard, Knights of Labor, Lincoln League, Patriotic Order Sons of America, Royal League, Swiss Society, Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and the Woman's Relief Corps.
Out of this meeting grew the Elgin Patriotic Memorial Association, a group that would officially incorporate four years later. The upstart organization included women as well as men and also reflected Elgin's ethnic diversity. It also shifted the focus of the group from one of a veterans organization to one of an assemblage of community groups.
Chosen as the group's president was William Brydges, a longtime educator who had served as a teacher, principal of Elgin High School, and later superintendent of Elgin schools. Dr. Susan Whitford, one of the city's first female physicians, was chosen as the vice president. Just over a decade later the association elected its first female president.
The new association continued the tradition of having veterans and children place flags on area graves on the morning of Memorial Day, then known as Decoration day. This would be followed by the strewing of flower tributes into the Fox River and a service at Elgin Cemetery.
The same year the association was organized, a new veterans section opened at Elgin's Bluff City Cemetery. Lobbied for by local Union veterans, the area saw small Memorial Day tributes at first but would eventually become the main location for the city's programs.
While Elgin's Memorial Day programs have varied greatly over the years, long-standing features include the reading of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Gen. John A. Logan's Order No. 11 which established the first Memorial Day. The tall G.A.R. memorial, which had been the focal point of the program at Elgin Cemetery, still continues in that role today.
Floral tributes placed in the Fox River are still part of the morning's events and are conducted by the Elgin Navy Club and the Elgin Marine Corps League, in cooperation with the association, at the Elgin Veterans Memorial Park. Attracting several dozen people on the Highland Avenue bridge until a decade ago, the program now draws nearly 200 people.
The association also conducts a brief program at Lakewood Memorial Park and participates in a Catholic Mass at Mount Hope Cemetery. Cooperating with the city of Elgin, it also coordinates the placement of nearly 600 burial flags that fly as part of the "Avenue of Flags" at Bluff City Cemetery and more than 2,600 small flags that are place on veterans' graves as part of the "Adopt a Cemetery" program,
For details on this year's events, visit www.elginmemorialday.org.
Elgin Patriotic Memorial Association members• American Legion Post No. 57
• American Legion Auxiliary Elgin Unit No. 57
• American Legion Riders of Post 57
• Disabled American Veterans Post No. 64
• City of Elgin
• Elgin Eagles No. 1047
• Elgin Elks Lodge No. 737
• Elgin Navy Club Ship No. 7
• Elgin Marine Corps League Detachment No. 077
• Elgin Turners
• Elgin United Civic Association
• Knights of Columbus Council 654
• Elias Kent Kane Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution
• Sons of the American Legion Squadron No. 57
• Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, P.H. Sherman Camp #2
• The Lee Barrett Memorial AmVet Post 202
• Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 1307
• V.F.W. Auxiliary Post No. 1307