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Taking You Back in History: Memorial Day Part 1

By Karen Davis, Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum/Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society


National Museum of American History archive

It was May 30th 1868 that Memorial Day was first widely observed. Its purpose was to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers. After World War I it became an occasion to honor those who died in all of America’s wars.


Many of us with “roots” in the South are aware of Decoration Day. It has long been a Southern tradition for family members to return home in the Spring to honor their dead relatives. Everyone helps to clean the cemetery, straighten old tombstones, and decorate the graves with flowers. A religious service and potluck “supper” often follow.


We will never know for certain if the southern tradition of Decoration Day was the inspiration for Memorial Day, but the similarities do exist . . . whether it is dinner on the grounds, family picnics, decorating a cemetery with flowers and flags, or the singing of gospel tunes and playing "Taps" on a trumpet.


As early as 1900, members of the local Odd Fellows Lodge arranged appropriate ceremonies for Decoration Day. For the past several years the Oak Grove Cemetery District here in Groveland has sponsored a Memorial Day Flag Lowering Ceremony at the Divide Cemetery. In the past, volunteers from the Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society have led “historic walks” through the grounds and given a brief history of persons buried at a specific gravesite.


The Divide Cemetery is one of five graveyards that have been identified in the immediate area. Situated on a knoll at the end of Memorial Drive and nestled among the trees it’s been known by several names; “cemetery on the divide”, St. John's Cemetery (after the original owner of the property), the Protestant Cemetery, the Oddfellows (IOOF) Cemetery and Oak-Grove Cemetery. The oldest grave-sites in the Divide Cemetery date back to the Gold Rush and reflect those who pioneered the region, including countless gold miners, farmers, ranchers, store keepers, etc.


There are also many military veterans buried here. Among them are men and women who served in the Army, Navy, Marine, Coast Guard, and Air forces as well as the National Guard, US Army Air and Medical Service corps. More than a few of these veterans served in combat zones; the Mexican-American War, Civil War, World Wars I and II, as well as Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf wars.


Another currently active burial ground of the area is Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery in Big Oak Flat. Dedicated in October 1860 the church was one of the few remaining wooden structures after a huge fire decimated Big Oak Flat in 1863. Though there may have been earlier burials at the cemetery, the earliest that can be identified is that of a 27 year old man who died within months of the dedication. Though many grave markers are missing, those that remain reveal the names of individuals and families that were instrumental in the founding of the community.


Are you interested in learning about some of the lesser known burial sites “south of the river”? Look for Part II of Memorial Day for more history of the area.


Taking You Back in History is provided by the Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society (STCHS) and the Groveland Gateway Museum. The Museum is open Friday - Sunday 10a - 2p


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