Memorial Day flower girl tradition spans generations

BRANDON — Every year on the last Monday in May, a group of first-grade girls in white dresses clutch bunches of fresh lilacs in their small hands. They walk single file up Center Street from the Brandon Post Office, smiling and waving to their families and friends. They follow the American Legion Color Guard and the Otter Valley and Neshobe School marching bands, and are joined by the Pittsford and Brandon fire department engines. The small parade with a purpose makes its way to the gazebo in Central Park.
There, the girls stand waiting, some fidgeting, some listening, others quietly looking around as the chaplain gives the blessing, and a young boy recites the Gettysburg Address. At the appointed time, after the patriotic songs have been played, the little girls cross Route 7 to the Brandon Civil War monument. They circle the monument twice, then lay their flowers to honor the fallen. The Color Guard fires a 21-gun salute, and in conclusion, two high school trumpeters blow “Taps” in echo, one answering the other with those singular, plaintive notes. That is Memorial Day in Brandon, and it is unlike Memorial Day anywhere else.
The tradition of the flower girls is one that goes back at least to the first decade of the last century, and it is a tradition often handed down through families. Everyone knows someone who was a flower girl in Brandon.
As so many traditional Brandon institutions fall by the wayside, like the Rotary Club and the Neshobe Sportsman Club, the tradition of the Memorial Day Flower Girls in Brandon is perennial, enduring and unchanging. According to Brandon historian and University of Vermont History Professor Kevin Thornton, the first reference to the flower girl tradition was found in a program for the 1902 Brandon Memorial Day ceremony. Thornton, however, is certain that the tradition began well before that, there is just no documentation to support that theory.
The Brandon Civil War Monument was erected at the intersection of Park Street and Route 7 in 1886, and children have perennially laid flowers at the foot of the monument on Memorial Day every year since at least 1902.
“It used to be a common part of Memorial Day across New England,” Thornton said of children laying flowers. “But now Brandon is the only town left that still does it. I think we’re pretty safe in declaring we’re the only town that still has this tradition.”
For the first decade after the Civil War monument was erected, Thornton said Brandon’s Memorial Day ceremony, like so many, was very much by, for and exclusively about veterans. Then, in 1896, the emphasis shifted to the passing on of legacies and the younger generations.
“That’s when they started incorporating kids into the ceremony,” Thornton said.
From there, Brandon’s tradition grew, to the point when, even in 1907, Thornton said, there are references to Brandon as having “an uncustomary dedication to Memorial Day.”
And that dedication endures today. At the 2012 Memorial Day ceremony, Stella Andrews wore the same white dress her mother Lisa Rader wore when she was a flower girl in 1981. Rader’s mother, Rhoda, made the dress in 1977 for Rader’s older sister, Lorelei, who wore it first. The dress is kept in a box, and Stella’s younger sister, Eva, wore it in the Flower Girls Ceremony last year.
Rader vividly recalls her day as a flower girl, saying the feeling of tradition and the seriousness of the day were palpable to her, even as a seven-year-old.
“I certainly remember we were part of something,” she said. “I clearly remember the guns going off, and lining up at the post office and walking all through the town and being the focus of the parade. I remember being part of this special role.”
The woman who has been in charge of organizing and shepherding the flower girls for the last 28 years is Neshobe School kindergarten teacher Ellen Knapp. Thornton’s admiration for the job Knapp does is clear.
“She’s the real hero,” he said. “She has kept this tradition going and miraculously unchanged for so long … and I hope it never changes.”
Knapp inherited the job from longtime physical education teacher Carolyn Memoe, who organized the tradition from the mid-1960s to 1987, taking up the task from Seminary Hill School first-grade teacher Mary Huntley. Huntley did it through the 1950s and ’60s, Knapp said.
Knapp and Memoe were both flower girls themselves and marched in the Independence Day Parade in 2013 along with roughly 40 other flower girls, past and present, including Lisa Rader and her daughter Stella. Brandon’s big Independence Day parade that year celebrated town history, including the flower girls.
As an adult and a parent, Rader sees Brandon’s Memorial Day ceremony with fresh wisdom and a nod to her own past.
“It’s pretty emotional, and it always catches me by surprise,” she said, adding that she appreciates the solemnity of the event.
“It’s always understated … There’s no candy throwing, no politicians,” she said. “It’s the reading of the Gettysburg Address. It’s the veterans. It’s just really poignant and meaningful, that we’re trying to remember our veterans and the sacrifices they’ve made. It’s sincere and it’s in the right place.”
As for as the flower girls, Rader agrees that the incorporation of children is key to the ceremony.
“The girls wearing white, it’s a clear focus on innocence and that makes the sacrifice our veterans have made so clear,” she said.
As for Knapp, she hasn’t lost her excitement for the flower girls ceremony.
“I really enjoy tradition, and this is one Brandon can be really proud of,” she said. “It’s another thing that makes Brandon unique. It’s been a pleasure and an honor to be part of this. It really is something special.”
THESE LITTLE GIRLS from the Neshobe School first grade waited patiently for their moment on Memorial Day in Brandon a few years ago. Since at least 1902, it has been a tradition in Brandon that a group of little girls in white dresses walk around the Civil War monument at the foot of Park Street and lay flowers to honor Brandon’s fallen soldiers. Photo by Lee J. Kahrs

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