The city of Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, an American village on the National Historic Register, claims to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, as do at least 24 other towns in America. I first visited this hamlet near State College, home of Penn State University, decades ago. Boalsburg’s claim goes back to a practice at the end of the Civil War. The town has a local museum and a history stretching over two centuries. The 19th-century feel of the village persists. A Memorial Day Festival is held there every year.
Memorial Day Custom
Its claim is stated on a large sign near the center of town:
An American village on the National Register
BIRTHPLACE OF MEMORIAL DAY
The custom of decorating soldiers’ graves was begun here in October 1864, by Emma Hunter, Sophie Keller, and Elizabeth Myers.
Named for David Boal who settled here in 1798. Village laid out in 1808. Boalsburg Tavern built in 1819. Post Office established 1820. First church erected 1827. Home community of three United States ambassadors.
First Memorial Day Claim
Is this claim valid? It appeared to be when I first visited it. It had the earliest grave decorations. However, in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, the official “birthplace” of the holiday, according to the Veterans Administration.
Furthermore, in 2014 the book The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday in America asserts that the Boalsburg story first appeared in publication in 1904, some forty years after the claimed fact. And there was:
“no indication that General Logan drew inspiration from any activities in Boalsburg and no evidence that it started the holiday.”
However, it should be noted that the authors of this book are from Columbus State University.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian