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Nyack People & Places: Memorial Day 100 Years Ago

by Mike Hays

Civil War veterans lead the 1918 Memorial Day Parade heading down Broadway Avenue on Burd Street in Nyack. To the left is the four-story Commercial Building. In the mid-background is the Trachtenberg Building and Woolworths (the white building, now Tureillo’s Pizza) on the Main Street corner.

Memorial Day, May 30, 1918, was solemn. America had entered what would come to be known as World War I the prior month, in April 1917. But most soldiers had yet to face combat in Europe. Numerous families in Nyack had sons or fathers in the service. Many of the approximately 400 volunteers and draftees from Nyack were already in training in South Carolina or Europe preparing for combat. The U.S. government announced that 750,000 American men who turned 21 in the last year (by June 5, 1918) would be included in a lottery for new draftees.

Decoration Day / Memorial Day

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, in 1868, a way of commemorating fallen Civil War Veterans. The date was initially set as May 30. It was changed to the last Monday of the month, to make a three-day holiday, in 1971. By World War I, Memorial Day was the prevalent term for the holiday.

Remembering Halliday Spencer Smith

Smith died four days before Memorial Day, on May 26, 1918, in France. He was the first of 15 men from Nyack to die in WWI. Smith had joined the “Silk Stocking Division” of the National Guard, one of the first groups mustered to Europe in April 2017. By that time, Smith was volunteering with the YMCA. He went to France in November 1917 as a YMCA Field Secretary performing soldier welfare work. He was stationed near Baccaret when he was killed in a front line bunker by a German gas shell. He was 31. He was buried as an officer in the French Military Cemetery in Baccaret France.

Woodrow Wilson declared Memorial Day 1918 to be “a day of public humiliation, prayer, and fasting.” People were asked to “pray almighty God that he may forgive our sins and shortcomings… and give victory to our armies as they fight for freedom.” When, for some unknown reason, the Hearst chain of newspaper chose not to include the prayer, local Nyack ministers suggested that congregations boycott the newspapers.

The war effort in Nyack

  • On May 26, 51 draftees From Rockland County, including 13 from Nyack, left by train, heading for a training camp in South Carolina. Dr. S. W. Toms, Nyack recruiter and parade marshal, as well as veterans of Waldron post, school children, and employees of the Nyack Shoe Company, escorted them to the train. The Nyack Military Band played “Keep the Homes Fires Burning” as they marched down Broadway.
  • The local phone company discontinued answering requests for the time of day (some 18,000 per day in Rockland and Westchester) to help become more efficient for handling wartime messages.
  • The national Milk and Dairy Farm Exposition in New York City had decided to remove every trace of “Germanism” from Limburger cheese, instead calling it Liberty cheese.
  • Herbert Hoover, National Food Administrator, called for an economical use of sugar and wheat and called for consumption of the nation to consume no more than two pounds of meat per person per week.
  • The National Shoe Retailers were advocating that women only wear low shoes for three quarters of the year, and not to wear boots over 8 1/2 inches high in order to save leather for the war effort. The Nyack Evening Journal also mentioned that “low shoes displayed pretty ankles to advantage.”

In and around Nyack on the holiday

  • Stores were closed on Memorial Day. No newspaper was published.
  • The Broadway Theater was open, playing the film The Bell Boy, starring Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, along with five acts of supreme vaudeville.
  • The Decoration Day horse races in Orangeburg were pushed back one day because of muddy tracks. Proceeds went to the Red Star, a fund much like the Red Cross, but for animals serving in the war.
  • A concert was held at the Nyack club, and $1,800 was raised for the Red Cross just before the holiday.
  • Two Nyack boys were held for breaking into the Hook Mountain bungalow of James W. Gerard, the former Ambassador to Germany, and throwing his furniture over the cliff onto river rocks. They used a revolver to shoot up glassware and pictures. On Memorial Day eve, their bail was fixed at $2,500.

The Nyack Parade

1918 Memorial Day parade in Nyack. The boy scouts near the end of the parade.

Services were held at St. Paul’s Methodist Church, where the parade began. The Tappan Zee military band led the veterans in the parade. The veterans of the Civil War, few in number by 1918, followed with their battle torn flags. Veterans of the Spanish-American War came next, along with current soldiers, and then the Boy Scouts. The parade continued to Oak Hill Cemetery where a service was held at the soldiers’ plot. Service ended with fired shots in a “A Salute to the Dead” and the playing of taps.
Photos C0urtesy of the Nyack Library. Photo of Halliday Spencer Smith and source for his biography from Nyack in World War I by James Leiner.

Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. He grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. He is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.

HRHCare Community Health logoNyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is brought to you by HRHCare and  Weld Realty.


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