Florence Memorial Day parade to mark 149th year

  • Members of the 10th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Civil War group march down Main Street during the 2016 Memorial Day parade in Florence. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Shirley Slahetka, of the Northampton Elks, right, hands out American flags to Megan O'Keefe, of Florence, and her one-year-old daughter Shayne O'Keefe, during the 2016 Memorial Day parade in Florence. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 5/25/2017 10:53:55 PM

FLORENCE — For 149 years, rain or shine, the community has gathered for the Florence Memorial Day parade. It’s said to be the oldest continuously run Memorial Day parade in the United States.

The first parade was held in Northampton in 1868, just after the Civil War.

“The ceremony of decorating the graves of deceased soldiers in our cemetery was appropriately observed,” the Gazette reported in 1868. “The weather was bad, rain falling during the forenoon and at the hour of assembly but not-withstanding, a large number of people were on hand to participate in the exercises.”

A century and a half later, the community will continue the tradition.

“The weather looks like rain, but it does not matter,” Tom Pease, Florence VFW Post 8006 commander, said. “We’ve never ever missed a parade on Memorial Day.”

The parade will step off at 10 a.m. Monday from Trinity Row Park, continue through the center of Florence, down Park Street, circle down Pine Street, turn onto Maple Street and back to the center, ending at the cemetery on Park Street.

A ceremony at the Park Street Cemetery will feature Florence resident and Vietnam veteran James Spencer. JFK Keys and the Northampton High School band will perform.

Pease said about 500 to 600 people participate in the parade and thousands gather to watch along Route 9.

Every year, the names of all the veterans who died in the past year are read, Pease said. Girl Scouts bring flowers to put on graves in the Park Street Cemetery.

“The Florence parade is always a crowd-pleaser,” former veterans services director Robert Cahillane said.

But throughout the years, the energy of the crowd has changed, some longtime residents say. American pride has started to fade.

Gordon Murphy, 87, said he started going to the parade when he was 2 or 3 years old. As a child, Murphy and other children would put streamers on their bicycles and ride along with the parade.

His son, City Councilor David Murphy, remembers going to the parade as a Cub Scout. Now he participates as a city official. And for many parades the Murphy family, , representing its real estate company, would give out coffee and doughnuts.

Gordon Murphy said years ago, there was an ambience of patriotism at the event.

“That feeling that the United States was a great place,” Murphy said.

But Murphy said the American spirit is not the same.

“Some of that pride has been lost,” Cahillane agreed.

As the veterans services director for 13 years until 2004, Cahillane described the parade as “Americana” — a small-town, country feel with the local fire department, Boy and Girl Scouts and the high school marching band playing a tune.

The parade is important for the younger generation to remember the past.

“Sometimes, we forget history,” Cahillane said. “We’re supposed to learn from it.”

He said some people in younger generations don’t fully understand how hard their forefathers worked and fought to have the freedoms today.

Cahillane said his father immigrated the United States from Ireland and worked his way to become a successful businessman and, ultimately, mayor of Northampton.

“He was just so proud to be an American,” he said.

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at cashworth@gazettenet.com.

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