FARMINGTON — Linn Wells, the well-known former sports director for Channel 13 TV and one-time Bowdoin College hockey coach, pulled no punches when broadcasting a story.

It’s 1970, and by now the 69-year-old Wells was station manager and “roving reporter” for Farmington’s WKTJ radio. Wells, also an eight-year Navy veteran of the World War II and Korean eras, was clearly perturbed by the new Maine law that moved Memorial Day from the 30th of May to the last Monday of that month.

Thus, when his hometown of Wilton decided to adhere to tradition and conduct its parade on Saturday the 30th rather than Monday the 25th, Wells proclaimed that Wilton was celebrating “the real Memorial Day.”

Reality can, of course, be a bit elusive and occasionally subjective.

But on this weekend, the 40th anniversary of the shift Maine made to observing Memorial Day on the last Monday of May, it’s worth taking a look at how the holiday emerged in its present form.

Nationally, the holiday began just after the Civil War. In the North, Gen. John Logan won public favor with his order of 1868 to observe “Memorial Day” on the 30th of May.

This date was chosen by Logan because it corresponded with the same day in 1865 when Union volunteers were officially discharged from service.

Because Logan’s order was a military one, it did not have the immediate effect of making May 30 a civilian legal holiday. That was left to the states. Within a few years, most in the North did this.

In Maine, this occurred in 1874, when the Legislature made May 30 its sixth legal holiday. (New Year’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, July 4th, Thanksgiving and Christmas were the others already on the books.)

the 1930s, a movement was afoot to move Memorial Day and most of the other holidays to a Monday for a three-day weekend.

Championing this effort in Maine in 1939 was a 27-year-old second-term legislator from Kennebunkport, Joy Dow Jr., a Portland advertising agency owner and recent Bates College graduate.

A bill that Dow sponsored to change Memorial Day, Patriots Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day and Washington’s Birthday to Monday holiday status won unanimous backing of the Legislature’s Legal Affairs Committee, and also passed the House of Representatives.

Dow heralded the proposed holiday change as one that would benefit both tourism as well as the state’s own workers.

He said, “We spend, here in Maine, a fortune to develop the state as a recreation land for other people in other states let us give the people of Maine five week-ends when they too can enjoy the finest state in the 48.”

Dow also decried the older system as both expensive and inconvenient.

On this point Dow cited a letter from a Portland hotel that claimed losses of some $2,500 every time Washington’s Birthday fell on either a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday because salesmen would cancel the other days of the week rather than spend an idle day in the middle of it.

Dow’s proposal ran aground in the Senate, where an older group, including sons of Civil War heroes, ridiculed the break from tradition that the bill symbolized.

Among them was Augusta’s Robert Cony, who pointed to the role that such Maine luminaries as Brewer’s Gen. Joshua Chamberlain and Gen. Oliver Otis Howard of Leeds played in the War of Southern Secession.

Not only tradition, but also practicality, entered the Senate debate. That’s when Bangor Sen. Harold Worthen argued that the proposed law would create confusion because the state would then be observing holidays on a date different than those in other parts of the country.

Dow’s bill went down to a 26-1 Senate defeat in the 1939 Legislature, despite its passage in the House.

The bill finally emerged triumphant from the 1969 Legislature, in a law that made the change for Memorial Day effective the following year, now four full decades behind us.

The impetus for this was congressional legislation doing the same thing for post offices and most other federal facilities, thus making it difficult for the states to march to the beat of a different drummer.

Though the shift of Memorial Day to a Monday holiday now seems widely accepted, many middle-aged and older veterans will no doubt be echoing Linn Wells’ 1970 assessment when he challenged the last Monday of May designation as not being the “real Memorial Day.”

A younger generation might also, of course, consider the practice of the last four decades as having acquired an authenticity of its own.

Time will tell.


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