Memorial Day,



James T. Herron, Jr.


The Soldiers' Monument by sculptor Guiseppe Moretti, located on the corner of Central Avenue and College Street, Canonsburg. The bronze was dedicated Memorial Day 1924.

Memorial Day, 1939 was one in a long tradition of holidays honoring those who had served their country in times of war. Veterans of the Civil War had originated the holiday, and Canonsburg’s Paxton Post, No. 126, Grand Army of the Republic had been in charge of the ceremonies—the parade, the memorial service at Oak Spring Cemetery, and the decoration of veterans’ graves—while its members were able.

The 1878 ceremonies, threatened by rain, began after noon with speeches in the old college chapel, better known for its later service as the high school’s Chapel Gym. Then a band led the veterans and speakers (who rode in a carriage) down College Street to Greenside Avenue, then to Pike Street. The line of march proceeded west on Pike to Bluff, then by way of College Street and Oak Spring Road to Oak Spring Cemetery.

After the G.A.R. memorial service and decoration of soldiers’ graves with flowers, the procession returned to Pike Street. There a delegation of veterans and the speakers left the procession and drove to Hill Church cemetery to honor the soldiers buried there. The band and the main part of the procession went to Payne A.M.E. cemetery. to. There after the graves were decorated, a second band joined the procession for the march back down Pike Street to Speer Spring Cemetery on the edge of town. After ceremonies there, the parade returned to the center of town and the participants were dismissed.

By the turn of the century, many of the veterans were in their sixties. Veterans of the Indian Wars and the Spanish-American War had joined the Civil War soldiers, but the number who had served in the more recent conflicts was relatively small. The G.A.R. Post still was in charge, but the honor of firing the salute over the graves had gone to the Sons of the Veterans. The 1902 parade began at the G.A.R. post on Central Avenue at eight o’clock in the morning. Led by a band, the parade circled the block: up to College Street, east to Greenside, south to Pike, then west along Pike. At Jefferson Avenue, carriages were waiting to carry the veterans to the cemetery, where the ceremonies began at ten o’clock.

The speaker in 1902 was Boyd Crumrine, lawyer and author of History of Washington County (1882). The decoration of graves in the other cemeteries was given to details drawn principally from the ranks of the Sons of the Veterans.

Canonsburg's Paxton Camp, Sons of the Veterans of the Civil War, circa 1905. The photograph was taken in the G.A.R. rooms in the Martin (later Johnson) Building on North Central Avenue. In the front row are Burt Berry, Basil McMillan, and ? Grubbs. Second row, Bill Jones, Hugh Clyde, Rev. McCurdy, Sam Moyers, Alf Newton, and a second Sam Moyers. Back row, Martin Estep, George Jones, unidentified, Walter Moyers, George Hoch, and Bill Shisbey

Observance at the G.A.R. Plot, Oak Spring Cemetery, Memorial Day 1917

Flag raising at the dedication of a new Memorial Monument in the old Veterans Section. Harold Cypher at the halyard.

In February 1924, Canonsburg’s Paxton G.A.R. Post closed its meeting room above the Corcoran 5&10. There were just two members left, James F. Speer and John W. Grubbs. Speer had been one of the original members of the post, and as acting commander returned the charter to state headquarters in Philadelphia.

Fifteen years later, at the 1939 observance, no local Civil War veterans remained. The last Canonsburg resident who had served in the war, Alexander McCracken, had died the year before, on the eve of Memorial Day 1937. That had left William A. Lockhart of Houston, a veteran of Sherman’s campaign through the South, but he had died the previous October. Just one soldier of the Indian Wars of the 1870s and ‘80s remained, 88-year-old James T. Vactor. Within a few weeks he was gone as well.

Memorial Day 1939 had somewhat of a special status. The worst of the Great Depression was over. Events in Europe gave an increased significance to the day, and the Daily Notes said the parade would be the largest in years. Many of the men who would march and some who would be memorialized had served in the European war little more than twenty years before. By the following year’s observance, Hitler’s blitzkrieg had swept through Belgium, and the evacuation at Dunkirk was about to begin.

Canonsburg’s newspaper, the Daily Notes, devoted an unusual amount of space to the holiday, and photographer William A. Amon took pictures of the parade from his location on Pike Street.

May 30, 1939, Memorial Day, was a Tuesday. School was out; Canonsburg High School’s Class of 1939, the largest in the school’s history, had graduated the previous Friday evening. The day before had been Class Day, directed by Miss Louise Scroggs. The two highest honors were so close that there was no valedictorian. Helen Benowitz and Betty Jane Jacobs shared the honor. Instead of speeches, they presented a dialog commemorating the half-century of Canonsburg High School classes.

There was a ceremony at neighboring Chartiers Township that evening as well. The Chartiers Township School District did not yet have a high school, but the building was dedicated that May evening. The newspaper reported that a thousand people crowded into the gym of the new school and heard Principal Ralph Bluebaugh and Board President Brad Williams speak of the efforts and vision of J. C. Bedillion, deceased, the former principal of the Chartiers schools and, before that, principal of Canonsburg High School. June Barnickle and Donald Bebout tendered greetings from the students.

Of course, there were other cultural activities of interest that weekend. Sammy Secreet and Pete (Kid) Spotti of the Cecil A.C. won their boxing matches at Weirton. Also on Friday night some boys from the Canonsburg A.C. were showing their stuff in the ring at the Donora Zinc Works. Red Foley, 120-pounds, won on a TKO in the second round. John Drochak and Cooper Lugenski were defeated, but Frank Barbosky won on a forfeit.

Canonsburg did very well in high school athletics that year. The school had a remarkable track team in the spring of 1939, particularly since they had no stadium in which to hold home meets. They practiced at makeshift facilities in the Town Park. The team was undefeated in dual meets, the last meet of the season having been run the previous Wednesday at Turtle Creek. Mario Palmer had set a new school record for the mile, 4:42.5, and Robert Perkins tied his pole vault record of 10’6". Joe Rybacki won the high hurdles and the high jump; Howard Gamble the low hurdles. Ross Hume, Zigmund Sulkowski and George Nikas swept the half-mile, and Floyd Robinson and Steve Berti finished one-two in the hundred. Bob Smith, who later would coach at CHS, won the 440 in :54.2.

The coach, Edgar "Dick" Mason, had run for Carl Olson at Pitt and this was his first year at Canonsburg. Earlier in the year, his cross-country and wrestling teams had been undefeated WPIAL champions. Of course, he had not started from scratch. He inherited Roc O’Connell’s wrestling program and replaced Donley Mollenauer as cross-country and track coach.

At the banquet given for the track team that spring, Don Mollenauer, who was teaching and coaching at Mt. Lebanon, said he found himself still rooting for the Gunners, just like a fan. He said that at one of the big meets, Coach Mason had asked him to give hurdler Howard Gamble some pointers. "I’ll talk to Gamble," he replied, "if you go over and have a few words with my pole vaulter."

On the Saturday before Memorial Day, Coach Mason and hurdler Joe Rybacki were at State College for the state championships. Rybacki was the favorite, having won the high hurdles at the WPIAL Championships at Pitt Stadium the previous week with a time of :15.1, setting a new WPIAL and PIAA mark. The record for the state meet was :15.3.

The blond six-footer from Canonsburg didn’t waste any time at State College. He set a new record in the trials with a :14.9 and became state champion with a time of fifteen seconds flat in the finals.

Pictures of the 1939 Canonsburg High School track season, from the 1940 Canon Log.

Canonsburg photographer William A. Amon.

Back in Canonsburg, there was a bit of a snag in preparations for Memorial Day. The seven men who had been getting Oak Spring Cemetery ready had formed a union and on Friday went out on strike. The usual work force was about four men, but extra hands had been hired to get the cemetery ready for the holiday. Most of the men had been getting $2 for a nine-hour day, while one got $3.50. They were striking for a uniform wage of 50 cents an hour for eight-hour days; time and a half for overtime and Sundays.

A board of directors ran the cemetery, and most of the directors were out of town, so no official action was possible. The responsibility and the work of getting the cemetery ready fell on the shoulders of the superintendent, Earl Wilson. To make matters worse, a new veterans’ section was to be dedicated, and ceremonies would be held both there and the old G.A.R. section.

The decoration of the graves had already begun. The county Veterans’ Grave Registrar, David Gillie, whose office was in the county courthouse, was responsible for coordinating the task. The Canonsburg Veterans’ Council had the responsibility for Oak Spring, Speer Spring, Payne A.M.E., and Hill Church Cemeteries as had the G.A.R. before them. They also were assigned St. Patrick, Cross Roads (Chartiers Township), as well as the Mt. Prospect and Mt. Pleasant Cemeteries near Hickory.

While the veterans were fanning out to decorate the graves, 68 merchants of Canonsburg and Houston were holding a Vacation Tours Contest. Sales bought votes that were assigned to an individual. On the Saturday before Memorial Day, the stores were giving 500 extra votes for every dollar purchase, and the contestants were encouraging friends to go on shopping sprees (or pay off bills).

There were local and out-of-town contestants. The local leader was Tom Totterdale, followed by Ida DiCio, Ted Klinger, Jean Layburn, Nellie Meredith, Kenneth Small, Mary Templeton, and Glenn Friel. G.R.Armstrong and Frank Mals led the out-of-town list, followed by Teresa Ducsay, Margaret Delost, and Martha Kochanski.

The promotion was a rousing success. Stores were crowded all day. Several merchants said they had their largest Saturday sales in years, and the newspaper reported that Monday sales were brisk as well.

The police also had a busy weekend. Offenses included someone who decided it would be fun to steal automobiles’ gas caps, routine traffic accidents, and a car stolen from McPeake’s parking lot that was found Sunday near Speer Spring Cemetery. A man tried to pass what probably was a counterfeit bill, but he grabbed it from the clerk and took off.

The Notes claimed that it was almost necessary to post a "Standing Room Only" sign at the local lock-up. The guests included nine drunks and three who were drunk and disorderly. The paragraph concludes with the sentence, "Four persons were arrested for failure to observe stop signs," but they probably weren’t tossed in the clink.

The formal Memorial Day observance began on the preceding Sunday with a special sermon by Rev. F. S. Eberle at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. The veterans, whether members of veterans organization or not, were urged to meet at the American Legion Hall and march as a body to the Jefferson Avenue church.

On Monday evening there was a rally at Legion headquarters to which all former servicemen were invited. The memorial exercises began the following morning at 8:15 at the soldiers’ monument on the high school campus. The Mothers of Democracy, formed during the First World War, presided over the placing of a memorial wreath and the raising of the flag by the boy scouts.

While this first solemn tribute was being carried out, the parade was forming nearby, on College Street. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the parade moved out, led by the Canonsburg Volunteer Fire Department’s Drum and Bugle Corps and the local national guard unit, Company H, 103rd Medical Regiment. Automobiles carrying the burgess, Harry L. Cook, and David M. McCloskey, a prominent Washington County attorney from Charleroi, who would be giving the oration at the cemetery, followed. Members of the borough council completed the first division of the parade.

The negatives shot by Bill Amon are not identified other than being in an envelope marked "Decoration Day 1939." This appears to be the start of the parade, with the Canonsburg firemen presenting the flag (left), followed by the Canons-burg Fire Department Drum and Bugle Corps (right).

The local National Guard Company, left, was a medical unit and therefore top heavy with physician-officers. The musicians in the picture to the right appear to be the boys of the Morganza Band, who led the second section of the parade. The rotund little man marching with them was their band director, Dionino Chiaverini.

The veterans were in the second section, behind the Morganza Band. In front was the color guard, the firing squad, and the officers of the veterans' organizations. They were followed by the marching veterans, and a line of cars carrying those who could not make the distance on foot.

The Pennsylvania Training School (Morganza) Band led the second division, which included the veterans, led by the firing squad, post commanders, and the president of the Veterans’ Council. Then came the marching World War veterans and disabled veterans in cars.

Next came the Houston Firemen’s Drum and Bugle Corps with Boy, Girl, and Sea Scouts. The final unit, made up of labor and fraternal organizations was led by the Midland United Mine Workers’ Band.

The parade route was east on College Street to Ashland Avenue, south to Pike Street, then westwardly to Bluff, and then to the cemetery. This year, the participants entered Oak Spring’s upper gate and proceeded back over the hill to the new section. Three veterans already were buried there.

Four Canonsburg clergymen took part in the dedication of this new section: Rev. J. Edward Istocin, St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church; Rev. H. Ross Hume, Canonsburg (Greenside) United Presbyterian Church; Rev. W. A. Mason, Payne African Methodist Episcopal Church; and Rabbi Benjamin A. Cantor, Tree of Life Synagogue.

At the conclusion of the dedication service, the observation was continued at the old soldiers’ section, commonly called the G.A.R. plot. There the Morganza Band accompanied the people assembled in singing "America," followed by a brief introduction by Burgess Cook and the invocation delivered by Rabbi Cantor. David McClosky presented his oration, and the Canonsburg High School Band played the "Star Spangled Banner." The observance was closed with a benediction by Rev. Hume, the traditional three volleys by the firing squad, and "Taps."

Canonsburg’s Town Park Swimming Pool had opened on Sunday, but attendance on Memorial Day, some 900 persons, eclipsed opening day. This was a far larger crowd than was usual this early in the season and was attributed to the warm, sunny weather.

The pool, under the supervision of pool director Mike Basrak, opened at two o’clock. Later in the summer, the opening would be at one o’clock on weekdays, with swimming instruction given in the mornings.

An improved Willow Beach, at Houston, opened for its seventeenth season on Memorial Day. The park was privately owned and boasted of facilities and equipment for boating, bicycling, fishing, picnicking, and dancing as well as swimming. Owner and manager S. C. Reynolds announced that new diving towers, playground equipment, and boats had been purchased for the 1939 season. There was also a new 50-foot wide driveway into the grounds. A newspaper advertisement suggested, "Patronize the Park That Pays Its Own Way." The lake and the pool are long gone, and the Houston American Legion post now owns the site.


Canonsburg’s Lodge 758, Sons of Italy, elected Fred Terling president on Memorial Day 1939. He succeeded Joseph Cavasina. Other officers elected were Steve Fragapane, Samuel Vincent, Fred Costanza, Louis Aquilini, Joseph Sammartino, Marion DiAmico, Gabriel Spino, James Scabbica, John Ranine, and Sacco Enrico. The names are spelled as they were in the Daily Notes, which was not known for accurate typography.

At Curry Field, the Washington County League baseball team sponsored by the Canonsburg Elks played an exhibition game against a team billed as Walkertown. Johnnie Grohal pitched an 8-hit complete game, winning 17-2. Harry Lazorchak took the hitting honors, going five for five with three triples.


Willow Beach advertisement, Daily Notes, May 29, 1939.
Box score from the DailyNotes of May 31, 1939.


The significant event of Memorial Day evening was the banquet celebrating the completion of Slovak Hall on Iron Street. The basement of the building had been built in 1933, but the Depression had interrupted its construction. Finally the auditorium and associated rooms were finished and the members and guests of the Slovak Home Society celebrated the event with festivities that began at 6 p.m..

The toastmaster was prominent Canonsburg attorney George J. Modrak. Stephen Gonglik gave the welcoming address, and Rev. J. Edward Istocin pronounced the invocation and extended the good wishes of the St. Patrick congregation. Additional speeches were interleaved with music and vaudeville entertainment.

The summer of 1939 had begun. By the following year, it was evident that another generation of local boys would be fighting, and dying, for their country. Rev. William R. McKim, who was the speaker at the 1940 observance, pointed out that nearly every generation had been required to serve under arms. The Notes paraphrased McKim’s concluding remark, "If our men are called upon to participate again in war, they will play their part with the same high ideals and patriotic loyalty as their predecessors."