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If you drive a few hundred yards south of downtown, you'll come upon a field of narrow stone monuments. It's clearly not a cemetery, but it also is clearly designed as a remembrance.

And when you find out what it is, you realize Waterloo is the appropriate place for the field.

Before Memorial Day was just one more three-day weekend and the unofficial start of summer, before it contributed to traffic congestion and the nation's obesity problem with lavish picnics, it was a somber day of reflection.

And it started in Waterloo -- near another important "birthplace," Seneca Falls. The first official Memorial Day was observed here, as a day to pause and reflect and be thankful. That first Memorial Day was May 5, 1866, one year after the Civil War ended, and it was intended to honor, with speeches, yes, but mostly with moments of quiet reflection, all those who had died in that great war.

Memorial Day has since expanded to recognize all deceased Americans who served in all our wars. And although remembrances of war dead date back dozens of centuries and have been found in all cultures, the concept of setting aside the same day each year for such a remembrance is largely an American creation. A Waterloo creation.

And that field south of downtown, that field on the north side of the Cayuga/Seneca Canal, created four years ago, is a return to the Civil War remembrance. It consists of 57 cenotaphs, 4-foot-high posts, several inches wide, each dedicated to one of the Waterloo men who died during the Civil War while serving in the Union Army.

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A small plaque at the base of one cenotaph contains the name of Sgt. Tyler J. Snyder, who was killed at Gettysburg.

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Henry C. Welles, a Waterloo druggist, suggested in 1866 to Gen. John B. Murray, a Civil War veteran and Seneca County clerk, that the town hold a formal, villagewide observation to honor those who had died in the war. Murray agreed and contacted his friend, Gen. John Logan, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois and later a U.S. senator, and Logan promoted the idea nationally.

Logan, who was also commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, selected May 30 for a nationwide observation -- because it was not the anniversary of any major battle. That date was officially observed for the first time in 1868.

One cenotaph is for Pvt. John Kiley, who was killed at Petersburg.

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Many sources list Logan as the founder of Memorial Day, while others list Welles and Murray. The day was generally known as Decoration Day because of the tradition of placing flags and other decorations on the graves of veterans, but in the 1880s, Memorial Day also began to be used.

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Pvt. Thomas Condon died in the horrors of Andersonville. One of the cenotaphs commemorates his service and sacrifice.

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In 1968, Congress passed a law creating three three-day holiday weekends, and Memorial Day (which became the official name in 1967) was moved to the last Monday in May (the other changes involved Washington's birthday -- now Presidents Day -- and Veterans Day).

The three-day weekend no doubt contributes to what the VFW has called "the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."

Even in Waterloo. This year the town has scheduled four days of events, from Friday to Monday, the actual Memorial Day, that will include an arts and craft show, horse and wagon tours, a parade of old cars, a 5K run, and lots of food. (For a complete listing see www.waterloony.com/mday2011.html.)

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Pvt. George Roger was killed at Fredericksburg. He was 18.

Pvt. Christopher Pfluresten was killed in Maryland. He was 49.

First Lt. Martin VanBuren Stanton.

Gen. Edward Payson.

Corp. James Orman.

Pvt. Irving Smith.

Each has a cenotaph.

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There's a Memorial Day Museum on East Main Street that tells about the history of the day and Waterloo's role in creating it. One block north, on East Williams Street, you will find the Terwilliger Museum (attached to the public library), which contains two floors of exhibits, including 19th century carriages, old typewriters, arrowheads, a reproduction of an old grocery store and hundreds of other things detailing Waterloo's past.

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Pvt. John Malone was killed in North Carolina.

Sgt. John Stewart died in Virginia.

Pvt. Jackson Henion died at Bull Run.

Each is memorialized with a cenotaph at Waterloo's American Civil War Memorial.

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Across the street from the library and a bit to the west is the M'Clintock House, where on July 16, 1848, several women gathered to write the "Declaration of Sentiments," which four days later were formally adopted by the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention, held a few miles to the east. That action in Seneca Falls is often considered the beginning of the modern women's rights movement.

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Pvt. Richard Gregory was killed at Spotsylvania.

Corp. Albert Stacy died after returning to Waterloo.

Pvt. Charles Walters, Sgt. Charles Farnsworth, Pvt. James Stevenson: all three died at Gettysburg.

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If you return to Main Street and walk about a quarter mile west, you'll come to Lafayette Park, with a multitude of monuments. One notes that the Marquis de Lafayette, the Frenchman who fought with the Americans during the Revolution, once visited here. Another lists the names of Waterloo residents killed in Korea. The names of local men who died in the two World Wars and in Vietnam appear on another monument.

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Pvt. Andrew Hermance died at Fredericksburg.

Sgt. Mark Pulver. Pvt. Irving Smith. Pvt. Ezra Odell. Sgt. Vinton Story. Sgt. Wyman Johnson. Each has a cenotaph.

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Go to Waterloo. Visit the museums and the M'Clintock House. And see the monuments at Lafayette Park. And eat food. Have a picnic over the Memorial Day weekend.

And visit the American Civil War Memorial. And read the names. What Rupert Brooke wrote about his fellow British soldiers who died in World War I also applies to these Americans: "These hearts were woven of human joys and cares."

Think about these men. Men who fought and died in service. They are why the people of Waterloo thought we should have Memorial Day.

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>If you go:

Take the Thruway east to Exit 41. Turn right onto Route 414 and go 4.3 miles north to the intersection with Routes 5 and 20. Turn right and go 1.2 miles. The Memorial Day Museum is at 35 E. Main St. The Terwilliger Museum is one block to the north at 31 E. Williams St. The M'Clintock House is across the street from the library/Terwilliger Museum complex. Lafayette Park is on West Main Street, about a quarter-mile west of the Memorial Day Museum.

To reach the American Civil War Memorial, go a half block west on East Main Street, turn left onto Washington Street, and go about 1/8 -mile south. It's on the west side of the street.

All locations are well marked, and there's plenty of free parking around town.

If you want to mix the modern tradition of shopping with sightseeing, there is also a large outlet mall, Waterloo Premium Outlets, on Route 318, with 100 stores.