A small town in central Pennsylvania feels it had the first Memorial Day observance, even while the Civil War was still raging in 1864.

There are 24 communities nation- wide who also lay claim to the designation of being the birthplace for the special day of remembrance for all veterans. They include Mobile, Ala.; Montgomery, Ala.; Camden, Ark.; Atlanta, Ga.; Milledgeville, Ga.; New Orleans, La.; Columbus, Miss.; Jackson, Miss.; Vicksburg, Miss.; Raleigh, N.C.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Charleston, S.C.; Fredericksburg, Va; Portsmouth, Va.; Warrenton, Va.; and, Washington, D.C.

An early observance in Waterloo, New York in 1866 was so well organized that President Lyndon Johnson a century later placed the government stamp of approval on it as the "official" birthplace of Memorial Day.

Situated in the foothills of the Alleghenies in Centre County, the scenic town of Boalsburg, however, claims that Memorial Day grew out of small, informal ceremony in its tiny graveyard.

One Sunday in October of 1864, while the nation was still in the midst of Civil War, a young teen-age girl named Emma Hunter and her friend, Sophie Keller, decided to gather flowers to place on the grave of Emma's father, Dr. Reuben Hunter, a surgeon in the Union Army who became a casualty of war. That same day, another woman named Mrs. Elizabeth Meyer placed flowers on the grave of her son Amos, who had died in the battle at Gettysburg in 1863.

Thus, Boalsburg claims that these women were the first unknowing participants of a Memorial Day service.

It was four years later that Gen. John A. Logan, then commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order, naming May 30, 1868, as a day "for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country." He signed the order "with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year."

The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873 and by 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states.

The first ceremonies were held to honor only those who had fought for the North in the Civil War but it later embraced Union and Confederate soldiers alike, and then was expanded to include all heroes who have made the supreme sacrifice in all American conflicts from the Revolutionary War to the present.

The idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation came from Moina Michael.

Inspired by the poem "In Flanders Fields" in 1915, Michael penned her own poem:

We cherish too, the Poppy red

That grows on fields where valor led,

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies.

Michael was the first to wear the red poppy, and sold them to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need.

Scouts have a proud history of decorating cemetery grave sites. In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing small American flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

An equally-impressive Memorial Day ceremony is held each year at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia when Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of the approximate 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried on those hallowed grounds at the park.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com