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Column: Worthington focused early on Memorial Day

WASHINGTON — There was a small Memorial Day service at Worthington as early as 1872. A bit surprising. The first passenger train arrived at Worthington on April 29, 1872. Only slightly more than one month remained for the new community on the hill above Lake Okabena to complete plans for its first Memorial Day, its first holiday.

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A little town did exist by that early date, and there were residents concerned for observing holidays. Carpenters and plasterers swarmed to the new villages emerging along the railroad. Clearly there would be a demand for them. They knew this. If you didn’t stop to dig a basement, and most new homeowners and storekeepers were not concerned about basements, it took only a short time to frame a house or store, nail on boards and siding and tack on shingles.

In its first year, Worthington already had a scattering of houses. There were store buildings. Herb Kimball drove the first nail for his hardware store on a Sunday morning the autumn before, Sept. 1, 1871. The three-story Worthington Hotel at the corner of what would be 10th Street and Third Avenue was already registering guests. There also was the Langdon House built on Second Avenue facing the railroad tracks.

Worthington was ready to shape some kind of ceremony for Memorial Day. And Worthington was eager. America’s first Memorial Day — they called it Decoration Day — the first Decoration Day in America was observed only four years earlier, in 1868, proclaimed by Gen. John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. Worthington and Nobles County were filling with Civil War veterans, G.A.R. members. By the next year, Worthington would come to have the largest G.A.R. post in Minnesota. These local veterans wanted very much to honor friends and buddies who fell dead about them at Shiloh and Chattanooga and The Wilderness.

There already was one dead veteran. George Stoddard, 61-year-old Michigan war veteran who served as an army engineer, came to Worthington before the arrival of the first passenger train. George Stoddard exhausted himself walking to the land office at Jackson, then back again to register the homestead he had selected west of town. It was April, but there still were snowdrifts in the long tangles of dead grass across the prairie. Stoddard, worn out, died in a room at the Worthington Hotel on April 23.

George Stoddard’s son, George S. Stoddard, and daughter-in-law were with him in the room at the end. It was for them to make arrangements for a funeral. They were grateful that Worthington’s first pastor, the Rev. Benjamin Crever, called to the Congregational church, arrived at Worthington the day before.

“Sure,” said Crever. “I’ll do a funeral.”

A wood box, a coffin with George Stoddard’s body, was carried to the lobby of Langdon House. After Pastor Crever ended his message the coffin was carried along Second Avenue to the intersection with 12th Street — except there was no avenue, there was no street and there was no intersection. Only prairie and dead prairie grass. The coffin was interred. George Jr. borrowed tools from one of the carpenters in town, Calvin Shattuck, and built a low wood fence around the new grave so that covered wagons and farm wagons would not roll over it.

Several months later, but before the summer was over, a Worthington committee chose a site for a cemetery — the present-day Worthington Cemetery. They were on high ground looking toward the north to East Lake Okabena. The fact that they could see the sparkling lake was one reason they chose the site. A mile to the east was the mysterious “empty lake” never identified on explorers’ maps. That lake bank where lightning struck a peat deposit, and smoke rose day and night through all seasons for many years — “empty lake” also was in view of the cemetery site.

George Stoddard’s box was lifted from his grave and interred in the new burial ground. On April 13, 1873, James Newkirk of the 13th Wisconsin volunteers was buried near by.

All this was the beginning of Worthington’s focus on Decoration Day. By 1874 there was a brass band, and there were more than 60 veterans in the line of march.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.