Memorial Day In Danvers

Richard B. Trask

The following is an expansion of an address given on May 29, 2017, in front of Danvers Town Hall.

Richard Trask speaks at Town Hall watched over by Operation Troop Support founder, and local veterans’ officer, Lt. Col. Richard D. Moody.
Click to Enlarge all Illustrations


It is with a sense of humility that I address you all gathered here today. Humility in that I never served in the armed forces of the United States and feel somewhat unequal to this honor, yet proud to have been asked.

Memorial Day exercises at Town Hall in the pre-WWII era with Great War Veterans and scouts participating among the large crowd

I believe that our two most sacred civil days of remembrance are Memorial Day and Patriots’ Day. Patriots’ Day is named for April 19, 1775, when our forefathers made the first stroke to become an independent nation. And we in Danvers have a personal, emotional attachment to that day, as seven of our young sons sacrificed their lives on the “Altar of Liberty.”

Danvers veterans marching down Sylvan Street in 1989

Memorial Day has always been a special day for me. As a kid I always watched the Danvers parade in the early 1950s, waving to my father, my uncles and other World War II veterans as they proudly marched in this memorial procession, just a few years after their own active service. I also now recall with wonderment seeing with my own eyes a few surviving members of Danvers’s own Company K, veterans of the 1898 Spanish-American War, who proudly participated in our town parade.

Roland Bouchard

Thurl Brown

On May 5, 1898, these same men marched down Maple and Elm Street in a parade including Civil War veterans and citizens carrying American flags to the Danvers Plains Railroad Station, the company beginning its journey towards Cuba. This architecturally beautiful 1867 Railroad Station is still standing, but unless we find a way to preserve it, will soon be lost to history.

In Junior High School my friend Roland T. Bouchard and I used to come to this Town Hall ceremony dressed in our Sunday go-to-church suits, believing it our patriotic duty. Thurl Dryden Brown (1908-1995), a veteran of the famed World War II 10th Mountain Division, served for many years as Danvers Veterans’ Agent, and organizer of our Memorial Day program. Each year we would hear President Lincoln’s inspiring “Gettysburg Address,” and the poignant World War I memorial poem “In Flanders Field” recited with both heart and trepidation by local students.

In High School, though I was not talented enough to play a musical instrument, I did serve with the Danvers High School Band as Captain of its Color Guard, leading the band with rifles and colors. After the Danvers commemoration and a quick lunch, I would go with my cousin Bobby Foster and his Father Fred, who had survived brutal fighting on Japanese Home Islands in 1945, to participate in the Town of Wenham commemoration. Memorial Day was always a special day.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, in anticipation of Memorial Day we used to have school assemblies. Indelibly set in my mind are the sweet, sad remarks Walter “Dewey” Harris (1894-1981), a beloved custodian at the Richmond Junior High School for 25 years, would tell us wide-eyed kids of the horrors of “The Great War” and the sacrifice of many of Mr. Harris’s comrades in 1918.

Walter Harris

Soon after my 1965 graduation from Danvers High School, many of my own classmates would be thrust into a far-away, brutal war themselves. We would lose good young men of our own generation, while others like my boyhood friend and classmate Richard J. Sears would show extraordinary bravery in horrendous situations, but at a terrible physical cost.

Memorial Day is a day not of glorifying War or National Destiny, but of honoring the women and men who were thrust into harm’s way or who had to cope with excruciating boredom away from home and family, in order to protect us all living peacefully at home. Their sacrifice and honorable service, no matter the righteousness or even the occasional questionability of the conflict, is the reason we remember, and honor, and thank these average people who did extraordinary things.

High School Band on High Street in 1998

And generations of Danvers people have continued the remembrance. Back in about 1903 my future grandmother Nellie Mae (Withey) Trask (1887-1965) was assigned to write a school essay. She penned in part:  “Memorial Day or Decoration Day we set apart to the memory of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War. It is set apart as a holiday not to be celebrated like the Fourth of July in a noisy, cheerful way, but in a solemn way… when we decorate the graves of our dead who gave their lives for their country. It was not until 1868 that it was set apart as a holiday on the 30th of May, in springtime, when even the poorest people could afford flowers, garden or wild, for their dead. As each Memorial Day comes again, more are added to the list of the dead and the ranks on earth grow thinner. Time is doing its work on the rosy-cheeked, light-hearted boys of ’61.”

Here in Danvers our Memorial Day observances proudly go back to the beginning. The photograph above exhibits the first Memorial Day ever observed in Danvers in 1866. The view is from the head of Maple Street looking northwest. The ca. 1845 brick building at the extreme left still survives as 32/34 Maple Street, and the steeple of the second Maple Street Church building is viewed further down the street. In the foreground is the Danvers Brass Band with their “over the shoulder” brass instruments. This band was organized by Austin Richards late in 1863. Members of the Danvers Board of Selectmen are right behind the band, one with a high hat. The other man in a tall hat in this row is Capt. Albert G. Allen. He seems to have some sort of baton in the hollow of his left arm, as one carefully inspects the original photograph, and might have been the marshal of the procession. The two boys in the express wagon on the right of the picture are Luther Guppy and Clarence Putnam. Veterans, hordes of young boys, and Sunday best-dressed women and children with flowers raised for the camera are further back in the procession. The procession marched to Walnut Grove Cemetery on Sylvan Street and decorated the graves of the recent combat or hospital dead Danvers Union soldiers. The band played a dirge at the receiving tomb and then they all marched back to Danvers Square, where the parade was dismissed.

The Civil War was a decimating conflict. On April 16, 1861, just after the fall of Fort Sumter, a “War Town Meeting” was held at Town Hall with scores of Danvers men volunteering for the coming conflict. After 5 years of hell, in which 700 Danvers men participated, our town lost 2% of its population and 13% of its participants to battle deaths and disease.

On November 30, 1870, the monument was dedicated to the memory of the over 90 soldiers and sailors who died in service. Talk of a monument began in 1868 with a committee created to solicit funds and find a suitable location. Designed by Underwood & Brook of Boston, the monument was created using Hallowell granite by contractor Peter Blessington. It was decided to place the memorial in front of the Danvers Town House (Town Hall). Jutting 33 feet into the sky, and with a 7¾ foot square base, the memorial included representations of cannon barrels vertically set at each corner. Cost for construction was $6,298.20, of which $3,000 was raised by subscription, while State Representative Edwin Mudge contributed his two years of salary to the memorial. The inscription on the front of the memorial reads:


The names of the Danvers men who died in service appear on the other three sides of the memorial.

As a kid I was not very impressed with our monument, preferring those that had effigies of soldiers, or grand metal statues like the beautiful, inspiring memorials in North Andover or near the common in Topsfield. It was only later that I appreciated that our Danvers memorial actually includes a listing of all those over 90 soldiers and sailors who sacrificed their lives for the Union. Danvers has followed through with this personal memorialization honoring those who have served in all our national conflicts.

There is the Revolutionary War Memorial at 5 Ingersoll Street just across from the Village Training Field at 85 Centre Street. I had the honor of researching and designing this memorial as one project as part of the Town of Danvers Bicentennial celebration. The marker is a Vermont granite monolith measuring five feet tall by two feet six inches wide, and fabricated by Kimball Memorials. The monument was dedicated June 19, 1976, during Danvers’s three-day celebration of the American Revolution Bicentennial.

Among those present at the dedication and seen in the snapshot photo above were Danvers Historical Commission members Dorothy Ford and town historian Charles S. Tapley, as well as First Church minister Rev. Will Conway (all with back to the camera). The Danvers Alarm List Company and Newburyport’s Continental Navy, two 18th century re-enactment groups garbed in authentic clothing of the Revolution, gave honors and fired three volleys in remembrance to the soldiers and sailors. They then preformed a maneuver called “Mourn Arms,” slowly lowering their muskets from off their shoulder so that the end of the musket barrels rest on their shoe, while the men bow their forehead on the opposite end of the wooden musket stock in a prayerful manner.

The monument contains the names of nineteen known Danversites who were killed or died during the Revolution in service to the united colonies and states. Included among the names are seven young Danversites who died during the Lexington Alarm of April 19, 1775, and two Danvers citizens who died in British prisons. An additional name was added to the stone several years later when new information came to light. The inscription above the list of men reads:

Two other smaller granite memorials flanking the Revolution monument were installed in 1987. These wedge-shaped markers remember two men each from Danvers who died in service during the War of 1812 which was fought against Great Britain (1812-1815), and the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The creation of these two markers was the work of Selectman Douglas A. Bean, who researched the men and designed the stones.

A Spanish-American memorial to 21-year-old bugler Spencer S. Hobbs (1876-1898) stands at the flag pole in front of what was built as the Junior High School on Conant Street, now renovated as our Middle School. Young Hobbs was a Danvers native and a piano tuner who volunteered to serve with Danvers’s Company K Militia. While at a staging camp in Georgia, Hobbs contracted typhoid fever and died in service. His body was transported back to Danvers, where a military funeral was conducted. Hobbs was laid to rest in Walnut Grove Cemetery after the firing of three volleys and the playing of “Taps,” a bugle call Hobbs himself had often sounded during his service.

In 1930 Danvers Town Meeting appropriated money for a memorial of concrete and granite dust with an attached bronze tablet. The tablet reads:

AUGUST 19TH, 1898

The snapshot photograph taken September 14, 1930, at the actual dedication day includes Hobbs’ mother Emma, sister Mrs. Alice Hobbs Parker, former Company K comrade John Mead, and (kneeling) Major Henry P. Thurlow, chairman of the memorial committee.

Back at Town Hall, the newer seven-foot-tall granite obelisk monument placed between the building and the Civil War Memorial was dedicated June 9, 1984, as the Vietnam Memorial. Displayed on the front face is an effigy of a combat soldier giving honor to a fallen comrade and with an American flag behind him. The name of five Danvers young men are included with inscribed words reading: “He’s my brother,” and “They did not ask why.”  The monument included on its other faces the words “World War One,” “World War Two,” and “Korea.”

By 1987 these other panels were inscribed with the names of 15 World War I, 55 World War II, and 5 Korea conflict Danversites who sacrificed their lives in service during these other 20th century conflicts, joined by the names of two additional Danvers boys who were victims of Vietnam.

Yet the chiseled-in-stone names on memorials do not tell of the humanity of these fallen patriots. Let me just speak of two names on our Civil War Monument.

Robert Winthrop Putnam was born in 1845 at 431 Maple Street in the same birth room as his illustrious ancestor, Revolutionary War General Israel Putnam. A child just turned sixteen, Robert received permission from his parents to join the Union Army in 1861. In an early letter home Putnam declared: “I left to help defend a Constitution that was second to none in the world, a Flag which every nation on earth respected. If I am to die, I shall be happy to die in the service of my country.”

In June 1862 Putnam was wounded at the battle of Malvern Hill, Virginia and, refusing to leave the field while his comrades were fighting, was eventually taken prisoner by Confederate troops. His family agonized over his fate for months. They finally learned that Putnam had died early in July, in the notoriously harsh Libby Prison at Richmond, Virginia, the day after paperwork had gone through allowing for his exchange. His honored house, now owned by the Danvers Historical Society, is in need of financial assistance for its continued preservation.

Samuel Pratt Withey (1845-1914) was also sixteen years old. He lived at 78 Liberty Street. In 1862 Samuel begged his parents to let him help in the Union cause, as his two older brothers had already done, by joining the Army. Samuel’s 44-year-old father, John Withey, fearing for his young son’s safety, also joined the same company as his son in order to keep watch over him. The son, a musician in the company, survived the war, but his father John contracted a camp disease and died in service in 1864. Sadly, the Withey house on Liberty Street, for no good reason, was torn down last year and is now a fallow field.

Each year we take our grandchildren Zachary & Grace Peterson to Walnut Grove to decorate and put a flag on the grave of their grandparent ancestor John, just as we had done a generation earlier with our daughter Elizabeth. Each man, woman, or boy who saw service has a unique, compelling story.

And now to today. This year (2017) we have just seen new markers recently erected by the V.F. W., replacing old or missing World War I named memorial signs at our various squares in Danvers.

As has been the case of previous decades of tradition, in just a few minutes the most sacred part of our ceremony will take place with the solemn reciting of this past years’ “Roll Call of Deceased Comrades.”  Among this number are two good friends.

Bruce Eaton

Bruce P. Eaton (1927-2017) had been a “townie” active in our community since before I was born. Last year he had the very appropriate honor of being Grand Marshal of the Memorial Day Parade. He is much admired and missed.

Officer Jimmy George

George Meehan

James L. George (1934-2017) was a veteran, a Danvers police officer, an unfailing Operation Troop Support volunteer, and an all-around good guy.

Back in 1982 the Town and the Veterans had financial problems, and, though the Town Hall exercises would be held, the annual Memorial Day Parade was no longer going to be run. Several of us believed that this longstanding Danvers institution should not be allowed to disappear. Jimmy George, George H. Meehan, another United States Veteran and Captain of the recreated Danvers Alarm List Company, and I organized what we called a “Danvers Procession.”

We changed the parade route slightly to include a stop at the High Street Burial Ground for wreath laying, volley firing and taps at this cemetery that has veterans of every war up through World War I, and we encouraged other groups to march in the procession. We organized this procession till 1987, when the Veterans took over again. We were very proud that there was no break in the tradition of a public Danvers Memorial Day parade.

One group with a long and distinguished role in our Memorial Day activities is our own Danvers High School Band, the pride of our community under the long directorship of the talented Ron Parsons. This band has a stellar record. It has participated throughout the United States in festive and patriotic events including a Presidential Inauguration, three Rose Bowl Parades, and last year at the 75th memorial anniversary at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The band has always participated at our Memorial Day events, performing patriotic airs and our national anthem. How fortunate we are to have this professional sounding, ever-evolving group of young people.

Pearl Harbor, 2016

And since 1975 we have had the Danvers Alarm List Company to give honor to our deceased veterans through black powder volley firing and the mourning of arms. This Revolutionary War reenactment group, representing the Danvers men and women of 1775, has always been available for any Danvers commemoration. The unit has had the honor of being reviewed by the Presidents of the United States and France, and Queen Elizabeth II. It represented the United States in Paris and Versailles in 1983, and has participated in scores of events up and down the eastern seaboard and in England.

Review by Queen Elizabeth II, July 1976

These two wonderful groups, joined by our honored living veterans, representatives of the active military, elected and protective personnel, Daughters of the American Revolution, Scouts of all ages and sizes, and other worthy participants, do great and proper honor to those whom we  remember and honor this and each Memorial Day. And this is good.

Online beginning April 2018
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