One West Virginia town’s Memorial Day Parade isn’t just a fun start to the summer. It has a special distinction: it’s the country’s oldest ongoing Memorial Day parade.
Now in its 150th year, hundreds of people will line the streets of Grafton on Monday morning.
They’ll gather to applaud veterans, marching bands and community floats. Families watch from front porches; for many folks the long weekend is a homecoming.
Grafton, the seat of Taylor County in North Central West Virginia, was once a bustling railroad town, a hub for the B&O Railroad. It’s also the home to West Virginia’s two National Cemeteries.
The spirit of the holiday is special to John Tighe, who jokes he’s nearly half as old as the parade. Tighe still vividly recalls gathering peonies to carry in the parade. It brought back special memories when his own children marched in the parade carrying flowers.
“It was a special time back then, and it still is today. I’m proud that Grafton still carries on these traditions and that Memorial Day still means something here today,” he said, recalling times when well-known state and national political candidates have also been part of the parade.
Some of the loudest applause will be for Taylor County school children who carry flowers to be placed on veterans’ graves at the historic Grafton National Cemetery. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1869 when it was known as “Flower Strewing Day.”
School children have been marching in the parade since 1890, and has become a time-honored way to honor deceased veterans.
Even now people can’t wait to see the smiling youngsters – most dressed in white, carrying fresh flowers cut from their own yards or a neighbor’s garden – wave to loved ones as they pass by en masse.
“Everyone loves a parade, and it seems like everybody especially loves our Memorial Day parade,” he said proudly.
But many people have moved, and can’t get back for the holiday. Others are proud of the tradition, and want to know more about it.
That’s why he’s made it a project to post old Memorial Day photos on his Facebook page, including lots of black-and-white pictures that date back as far as 1887, old postcard images and even a Decoration Day program from the 1912 observance.
Hundreds of people have visited his page and liked these posts, so many that even Tighe has been surprised by their popularity.
“It’s just a shame that so many folks who would like to live here aren’t able to get a good job and stay. I think the fact that they miss their hometown is a big part of the reason people are so happy to see what I put on Facebook,” he said.
He also has other posts from Grafton’s past, including the Tygart Valley Bridge, former B&O Roundhouse, early days of Carr China (including the swinging bridge which crossed the Tygart River at Maple Avenue), the Willard Hotel and B&O train station.
Because he loves his hometown so much, Tighe isn’t planning to stop sharing anytime soon.
“I still have lots more to go,” he said.