A look back at Decoration Day
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a monthly series on the history of Webster City and Hamilton County, written by local historian, Nancy Kayser.
J. D. Hunter, editor and proprietor of the Hamilton Freeman began poking at Webster City citizens to celebrate Decoration Day in 1872. Every year, in the Local News column, he would note the event was being observed in other towns. Hunter would mention that it was a “due observance of this hallowed occasion.”
Hunter’s prodding brought about Webster City’s first Decoration Day event in 1879. Organized on short notice, more than 200 people assembled at Graceland Cemetery for music, singing, prayers and speeches commemorating the Civil War dead. The citizens brought flowers from their homes to adorn the military veterans’ graves.
Several cities lay claim to beginning the practice, in the mid-1860’s, of honoring the more than 600,000 men who died for both the North and South during the Civil War.
It is believed the May 30 date was selected because that was when homegrown
flowers were in abundance.
First called Decoration Day, federal law declared the official name to be Memorial Day in 1967. The next year, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved several holidays from their traditional dates in order to create three-day weekends. Memorial Day then became fixed as the last Monday in May. It took some coaxing, but finally all 50 States adopted the date changes within a few years.
Memorial Day gradually became a day to honor all of those who had passed away but the core celebratory events still retained military traditions.
Webster City held its first Decoration Day parade in 1882. The groups gathered at the corner of Seneca and Bank streets to parade down Second street turning south at Des Moines street to the cemetery. The parade was led by members of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) post, followed by Union soldiers, the Webster City Artillery company, various civic organizations and citizens on foot. Citizens in carriages were the final unit of the parade. After a program of music and speeches, people placed flowers on the flag-marked graves of the veterans.
For many Decoration Days, May 30th was hot and sunny. There were no drinking fountains in the cemetery to refresh the marchers or those attending the program. Parker Morse Banks decided, as his last gift to the city, to provide a place to get a cool drink of water.
Banks, born in 1841 at Bath, Maine, came to Webster City in 1866. Just a year earlier he had been mustered out of the 105th Illinois Volunteers after three years’ service during the Civil War. He had participated in thirteen battles including the engagements at Atlanta and was with Sherman on his March to the Sea.
“Park” Banks served as City Clerk for fourteen years. He was also the Mayor of the City in 1915 and helped institute the present Manager plan of government.
Friends described him as a “gentleman of the old school, always happy and radiating good nature”. They remember he was always doing deeds of kindness and charity and was called the dashing widower of the city who became the friend of the whole community.
So it was no surprise after Parker Morse Banks died on December 26, 1923 to learn that he had bequeathed five percent of his estate to Graceland Cemetery to provide a fountain in the Soldier’s Plot. His will directed the fountain be dedicated to “The Memory of Deceased Soldiers of the County” so that everyone could get a cool, fresh drink of water.
It took a bit to convert the Bank estate assets into cash. The Webster City council minute book records a resolution passed on August 16, 1926 accepting the bequest for the drinking fountain at Graceland Cemetery. The Council also appointed a committee to select the fountain.
It is assumed the demands of the Depression’s worsening financial situation took precedence over building the water fountain. However, the City had deposited the $1,000 Banks bequest into a trust fund which continued to increase with earned interest.
Council minutes noted on September 14, 1936 ten years after the receipt of the money that the Parker M. Banks Memorial Fountain has not been built. In the same month, the Council appointed another building committee headed by local attorney R. G. Remley.
The Banks Fountain was designed by Richard W. Youlden, city architect. The committee worked with the City of Webster City, Hamilton County officials and Kit Brandrup, cemetery caretaker, to make the fountain design eligible for Works Progress Administration (WPA) assistance.
Construction began in March of 1940 to build the memorial fountain stage. Labor was provided by WPA workmen. Built from native stone, the design included two basement rest rooms, the platform stage and two water fountains. The tablet commemorating the structure was done by the American Bronze Company of Chicago.
By 1940 the Banks Fountain trust fund had grown to more than $1,500. Final cost of the structure was $1,456. The use of WPA labor allowed the committee to stay within their budget.
Parker Morse Banks’ stage and water fountains were dedicated on Decoration Day in May of 1940. Attorney Remley delivered the dedication address. He told the crowd he was “sure the spirit of Park Banks is pleased with what has finally been accomplished and his spirit will speak to us from it on all future Memorial Days.”
Banks would be disappointed to learn that his Soldier’s Memorial no longer provides a cool drink of water. Aging of the original rest rooms and water fountains forced their closure many years ago.
But the Parker Morse Banks stage in Graceland Cemetery remains the site for Webster City’s Memorial Day programs every year. The flags fly, the band plays, the speeches are made and the prayers are offered as citizens continue to honor those who sacrificed so much.