By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current

It’s Memorial Day, a day to honor our war dead.

But in modern times it has so many other meanings: the beginning of the summer travel season, a day of sports (particularly racing), massive holiday sales events, and so much more.

Originally called “Decoration Day,” its symbol became the red poppy.

The trampled and pock-marked fields of World War 1 battles would be covered by red field poppies after the soldiers moved on (the dormant seeds germinating in the disturbed ground).

Dr. John McCrae, a Canadian soldier, penned the poem “In Flanders Fields” in 1915, based on his observances of war-torn Belgium: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row.”

A few years later, in 1918, Moina Michael wrote another poem (based on McCrae’s) called, “We Shall Keep the Faith:” “And now the Torch and Poppy Red, We wear in honor of our dead.”

For those of us old enough to remember, it was once commonplace to see those paper poppies attached with fuzzy pipe-cleaner wires to coat lapels.

Mrs. Thos. Spence pins Mothers Day poppy Herbert Hoover's Secretary of War. From: Library of Congress
Mrs. Thos. Spence pins Mothers Day poppy Herbert Hoover's Secretary of War. From: Library of Congress
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It was also expected that someone would have a radio on, so we could hear the turn-by-turn coverage of the Indianapolis 500 from the brickyard.

But the tradition of racing on Memorial Day didn’t start with the Indy 500. It goes back to the horse races and bicycle races of the 1800s.

Helena was the scene of the “Great Road Race” in the 1890s.

1896 – Helena Great Road Race Decoration Day – Ad – Vanguard Hill Climber bicycle. Includes offer for tickets to event.
1896 – Helena Great Road Race Decoration Day – Ad – Vanguard Hill Climber bicycle. Includes offer for tickets to event.
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When the world-class Broadwater Hotel at Helena opened on May 12, 1895, bicycle races were held on the hotel’s “new oval track which was completed at great expense.”

An estimated 2,500 people watched the event. L. W. Boyce of Butte won the “open mile championship” event with a time of 2:51.

Parades have always been a part of Memorial Day observances.

1923 - Memorial Day parade Main street - Fergus County courthouse. Montana State Library/Lewistown Public Library
1923 - Memorial Day parade Main street - Fergus County courthouse. Montana State Library/Lewistown Public Library
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Lewistown’s parade in 1910 was advertised as one you shouldn’t miss. “The most striking features will be the auto parade, in which a long line of handsomely decorated autos will participate.”

“In addition there will be the living flag, costumed young women on horseback, decorated floats, secret orders (like Masons), national guardsmen, fire department and other features.”

After speeches and the reading of the Declaration of Independence, music, sporting events and daylight fireworks were planned.

It was all to wrap up with an auto race “around the Cottonwood loop and back” with a “handsome challenge cup offered to the winner.”

Today’s events seem to be smaller and less attended than in the past. Or perhaps it's just my age and perspective.

Whatever your plans, do keep in mind the original reason for the observance: to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country in times of war.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at fuzzyfossil187@gmail.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.

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