From Decoration Day to Memorial Day

We think of Memorial Day Weekend as the unofficial kickoff to summer, but in 1868 “Decoration Day” was established by a G.A.R. organization to decorate the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the War of the Rebellion. The date of May 30th was chosen as no significant battle occurred that day.

The holiday evolved as more unfortunate wars occurred and soon it commemorated all military personnel who had given their all and became widely known as Memorial Day. Flags and flowers brightened cemeteries, parades and picnics were held.  In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. The change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.


Grover C. von der Heyde photographs. The photographer was Grover C. von der Heyde. The images date from around the 1950s. They are views of parks and cemeteries, taken at different seasons.

Currently, flag etiquette states the American flag is to fly at half staff until noon on Memorial Day, then be briskly raised to fly high until sunset. 

A 3:00 p.m. Moment of Remembrance was started when a group of children touring Washington, D.C. in the 1990s were asked what Memorial Day meant. They responded, “That’s the day the pools open!”.

Special Collections has a number of resources that can aid you and your family in reflecting on the sacrifice of the men and women that have served our country valiantly over the years, honoring them for their service to our Nation.

Listen to or read transcripts of nearly eighty oral histories recorded by Korean War and World War II military personnel and those who participated in home front activities. We visited with men and women who served in military and civilian capacities and heard of the hardships and pride they felt during those tumultuous years. We accepted artifacts from participants and have uniforms, caps, ribbons, pins, ration points, currency, and other interesting collectibles that supplement the interviews.

You may wish watch a War Bond Rally from our video collection. Our photograph collection includes individual,  group and unit photos from different eras and our book collection has unit histories. We have scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings of all the comings and goings of locals and microfilm from the WWII Iowa Press Clipping Project done by State Historical Society of Iowa.

Military records like draft registration records can provide personal data for any individuals in your family that registered. Bonus files can tell you where your loved one served.

This Memorial Day, consider visiting the Rock Island Arsenal Cemetery for their Monday 10:45 a.m. service. Place flowers on an ancestor’s gravesite at City Cemetery after their Saturday event at 1:30 when they commemorate new stones for previously unmarked veteran graves. Learn more about someone in your family that served by exploring on our website or using some of our online databases.

Whatever you and yours choose to do, stay safe and try to take a moment to appreciate the true meaning of Memorial Day before you jump into a pool!

Kampfgenossen Verein 1870-71. Photographer was J.M. Lenz. The photograph was taken circa 1907. It depicts members of the association of German veterans, the Kampfgenossen Verein, posed in front of a memorial to the soldiers of the Franco-Prussian War in Washington Square Park.

(posted by Karen)

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