Ozark County native Donna Walker shares Decoration Day memories from the 1930s
Reprinted from the Ozarks Alive! blog by Kaitlyn McConnell. To read more of McConnell’s stories about Ozarks characters and history, visit ozarksalive.com. This is the first part of a two-part story that will conclude in next week’s Times.
While it lives on here and there in Ozarks hills and hollows, Decoration Day is a tradition of Ozarks culture that has largely died with the people who kept it alive.
For generations, Decoration Day was a time when folks gathered at cemeteries and churches to remember family and friends who went before. Some from right down the road while others considered the event a homecoming and came from afar.
There was food and fun in addition to the time of remembrance, which began after the War Between the States tore the Ozarks apart.
“The Civil War was still vivid in the minds of the people of the Ozarks, and while rancor had died down, May 30 was a day to stress harmony, friendship, respect for the dead (especially soldier dead) and patriotism,” records author Dr. Robert Gilmore in his book, Ozarks Baptizings, Hangings and Other Diversions.
“An Ozark County correspondent indicated the importance of patriotism in these celebrations by capitalizing the word each time he used it.”
The somber-yet-celebratory holiday eventually grew to recognize all those gone before. Nowadays, fewer places and people recall the tradition, which began evolving into Memorial Day after World War I.
Donna Walker remembers
But there are those who remember it well. One of those individuals is Donna Walker, who was born and grew up in rural Ozark County. Now in her early 90s, Walker’s memories of Ozarks burial customs and Decoration Days go back to the early 1930s.
To tell those stories, Walker’s memory travels miles into the Ozarks to the tiny towns of Almartha and Souder. Today, little is left of these rural communities; paint-chipped buildings tell of the towns and times when people called them home.
“When I was a girl, it was very important,” she says from her kitchen table in her Ava home. “We would dress up. We always had a new dress and new shoes.”
Today, Memorial Day is held on the last Monday in May. Back in Decoration Day times, the holiday was always on May 30 — but communities might use other days so people could attend more than one gathering.
“Thirty years ago when I moved to Kingston (Arkansas), Charlene Grigg (an owner of the general store) told me that Decorations used to start in April and run through September,” says Abby Burnett, author of Gone to the Grave, a book about Ozarks death and burial customs. “They had to keep artificial flowers in stock that entire time, for Decorations.”
Regardless of which day it fell on, a lot work went into getting things ready at the church or cemetery where people would gather.
“It was always very important that people there have everything really clean,” says Walker.
Today, even with modern conveniences, that task might sound daunting. Back then, its scope was much bigger — though perhaps, when faced with hard work every single day, it helped that people simply didn’t know any different. It was just what they had to do.
On cemetery clean-up days, “Families wore their oldest clothing because the work was dirty and physically demanding,” notes Burnett in Gone to the Grave. “Men used axes to chop away vines and brought grubbing hoes, briar hooks, rakes, shovels and pitchforks to remove underbrush. Sometimes sheep were turned loose to graze away grass in a cemetery, while one Searcy County family cemetery was routinely burned over to remove underbrush.”
A well too close to the cemetery
In Ozark County, Walker says that “corn knives” — a hand-held blade — are what most folks used to cull the year’s worth of grass.
“We didn’t have lawn mowers,” she notes. “It [the cemetery] wasn’t all clean. They couldn’t (manage that).”
Inside the building, the clean-up effort found women and girls scrubbing the Souder church, which was finished in 1912. It also presented some problems that folks today don’t really have to think about.
Walker recalls a well, drilled down into the ground, where water was obtained via a bucket lowered from cut trees.
While the well was located up the hill from the cemetery, it didn’t convince everyone that the water was good.
“Many people would say, ‘I wouldn’t drink water from that well. It is too close to the cemetery,’” wrote Walker in a collection of her memories.
Perhaps they had a reason to worry, as Walker’s written memories continued:
“We were getting ready to clean and we needed lots of water to scrub the floor. Some of the bigger girls and women went to the well to draw the water to use. They let the well bucket down into the well and released water into water buckets to carry into the house. As they emptied the well bucket of water to their surprise some skin appeared inside the water. IT REALLY CAUSED QUITE A STIR. To quiet down the astonished and excited girls, some men who were working in the cemetery heard the commotion and immediately came running out of the cemetery to see what was causing all of the ruckus. It was determined a squirrel had gotten into the well bucket as it was stored on the hook and died. Then when the bucket was filled with water the skin stayed inside the well bucket and was pulled up to the top along with the water. This particular bucket of water was poured out and a new bucket full was drawn. It was clean and used to clean the floors.
“That particular well was never popular with the people and seldom used. It was (eventually) abandoned.”
On the day when people came and gathered and remembered and made new memories, it was special, perhaps the one day each year when folks were in once place.
“Ozarkers dearly loved political speeches, but even they were out of bounds on this occasion,” records author Gilmore in his book. “A political rumor was started against a young prosecuting attorney in Stone County that he had made a political speech at a Decoration Day exercise. He vehemently denied the charge and deeply resented the implication that he would even consider doing such a thing.”