The Missoula courthouse clock tolled 10 o’clock. It was Memorial Day, one hundred years ago, May 30, 1924.

Parade Marshal Will Cave, the city’s unofficial historian in those early days, positioned himself across the river on the city’s south side to lead the parade over the Higgins Avenue Bridge, northward toward the courthouse.

Right behind Cave was the ROTC band, “its instruments blaring gaily, with the entire battalion from the State University following in close formation,” according to press accounts at the time.

Then came the veterans, led by the oldest – those who had served in the Civil War sixty years before. Their numbers dwindled with each passing year. Most were now white-haired and a bit frail, so they rode in automobiles, rather than marching.

May 31, 1924
May 31, 1924

Not everything went off perfectly. In fact, there was quite a kerfuffle over the “failure to display Missoula County’s service flag in its customary place of honor.”

The committee in charge claimed to have looked everywhere, but couldn’t locate the custodian who had the flag.

Well, the custodian had a thing or two to say about that!

May 31, 1924
May 31, 1924

Nellie C. M’Haffie responded, “I wish to say that I was appointed custodian of the service flag by the County Commissioners when it was given into their care.”

“It has been my custom to notify the mayor of the day before Memorial Day, or in case of a military funeral, to have the fire department hang the flag in the place where it was dedicated, between the Hammond and the First National Bank buildings.”

“I notified Mayor Beacom 24 hours before the parade to have the flag hung in its accustomed place and the American Legion Auxiliary would pay for any expense for new rope, if necessary. I have not been notified why it was not done.”

That aside, the rest of the ceremony went as planned. Fort Missoula Chaplain C. C. Merrill gave the memorial address, based on Edward Everett Hale’s “Man Without A Country.”

He ended with the reasons for the observances each year: “Faithfulness, courage and loyalty were held up as the principal tenets of the true faith of a citizen of the United States.” Those were “the characteristics which had made this the greatest country on earth, and which would keep it at the top, if we are true at heart to the flag.”

Newspaper Clipping May 31, 1924
Newspaper Clipping May 31, 1924

Some of Missoula’s oldest residents mused that the city’s observances hadn’t changed much over the years, although with population growth, the observances had become larger.

One woman recalled the years that the Northern Pacific railroad “ran special trains from the passenger station to the cemetery,” adding that “the cemetery is a much more beautiful place than it was originally before there was a lawn and other improvements.”

At the 1924 observance, “Miss Gertrude Hassler, accompanied by Mrs. Walford, sang ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ which the members of the club stood at attention.”

“Chester Watson of the University Glee Club sang ‘Roses of Picardy and a humorous song, ‘All the World Loves a Lover.”

Meantime, the doughboys stationed at Fort Missoula, were packing their gear for a planned 10-day march to Fort William Henry Harrison, near Helena. After exercises there, they would return to Missoula by July 9th.

For many (then as now) the Memorial Day weekend marked the kick-off to camping season. According to newspaper reports in 1924, “A number of parties (were) making plans to make the three and a half to four hour ride to Lake Ronan for the holiday.”

The lake was stocked with “silver salmon, eastern brook trout and rainbows.” Other anglers planned on camping at smaller streams and creeks, as the large streams and rivers were still running too high for decent fishing.

Originally called “Decoration Day,” to honor the fallen soldiers of the Civil War, the observance has changed over the past one hundred years. It now honors Americans who have died in all wars, from World War II to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Congress made some further adjustments in 1968. The holiday had traditionally been observed on May 30th each year. The lawmakers declared it to be a federal holiday, to be celebrated on the final Monday in May. They did so in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees.

The general public liked the idea of a long weekend, too, and Memorial Day quickly became known as the “unofficial kick-off to summer.”

The only problem is, our representatives failed to reach a deal with the most crucial player, Mother Nature. They didn’t even try. She wasn’t even invited to the conference table. No wonder she quite often ruins our best-laid holiday plans. Major oversight, Congress!

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