Memorial Day on San Juan Island: Our tradition of honoring

On May 30, 1917, Charles McKay raised the U.S. flag on the new pole at Spring and First streets. Fifty-eight years earlier, McKay raised a U.S. flag on the island in defiance of British troops during the joint military occupation. This photograph was published in the centennial book, ‘Friday Harbor.’                                          - San Juan Historical Society
On May 30, 1917, Charles McKay raised the U.S. flag on the new pole at Spring and First streets. Fifty-eight years earlier, McKay raised a U.S. flag on the island in defiance of British troops during the joint military occupation. This photograph was published in the centennial book, ‘Friday Harbor.’
— image credit: San Juan Historical Society

On Memorial Day 1917, a Friday Harbor girl, Caroline Reed, attended the ceremony to dedicate a new flagpole and flag on Spring Street. Later she wrote of it in her memoir, “Underpinning.”

Her niece, Sue Reed of Cape San Juan, is republishing the book. Reed shared her aunt’s story of that day in 1917:

From the book "Underpinning"

When war was declared in April 1917, I had no knowledge of the implications, causes, or conditions of the conflict that would so change our lives.

The most vital national issue of the hour found little place for explanation in the curriculum of grade four in Friday Harbor. We struggled to memorize the names of the states and the spelling of state capital cities. After all, one should know one’s own country best.

For months a number of public-spirited citizens had been soliciting funds for the purchase and erection of a community flagpole and for a large flag. On April 10, 1917, a petition was presented to the town council asking permission to erect the new pole on Spring Street.

Father was a member of the committee appointed by the mayor to select the site, and we heard discussion of the proceedings around our dinner table. Father favored the park at the waterfront as the best site, but the committee majority selected the center of Spring Street where it was intersected by Second Street.

On Memorial Day, May thirtieth, the new flagpole was dedicated and the new flag raised. The day seemed more like the Fourth of July than any other day of the year. A holiday crowd thronged the village, but the prevailing spirit was a somber patriotism rather than joyful celebration. Mother and Father stood on the bank building steps with the two little girls, but my brothers and I crowded toward the center of the intersection.

The flagstaff was as tall and straight a spar as I had ever seen, painted white and slimmer at the base than one would have expected for the great height. Large and jagged fragments of igneous rock had been chipped off some island buttress and placed as a fitting guard around the pole base.

The Boy Scouts stood in self-conscious resplendence, their new khaki uniforms and bright neckerchiefs in strong contrast to the dark woolen clothes of the men. The mayor spoke and another prominent citizen delivered addresses suitable to the occasion. I could not understand them, so I studied the peculiarities of the speakers’ physiognomies. A prominent Adam’s apple beneath ill-fitted false teeth always added to the interest of patriotic addresses.

Old Man McKay would raise the flag, Father had told us, because the elder had raised the first American flag on San Juan Island fifty-eight years earlier. Unlike everyone else, Father always called him Mister McKay. Father also differed from others in some of his views. He opposed the projected removal of pioneer-planted poplar trees shading the post office and tailor shop, and he opposed the selected site for the flagpole.

Father thought a pole in the middle of Spring Street was as much in the way as had been the now-filled well and watering trough at John Friday’s spring. Community agitation at the nuisance of the well site had inspired its removal and the piping of its water to the drinking fountain in what later became Memorial Park at the waterfront. The removal of the big trees, he thought, would not make Friday Harbor a city and could only destroy some of its charm as a village.

Under my own saluting hand I could see that Art was not standing like a soldier as Father showed us. Old Man McKay grasped the halyards to raise the flag. As he stood tall in his black woolen suit, it was hard for me to associate him with the powerful but grease-stained blacksmith bending over his forge. McKay’s white beard was yellowed about the mouth, and an expression of impersonal pride spread over his face. It was the kind of look that made me feel proud, too.

The flag easily ran up on the new pulleys. It was difficult to watch; he stood so close to the pole. Tipped off by the cheering and clapping that broke out when the masthead was reached, Old Man McKay stepped backward and looked up. He gestured with his right arm as though waving a hat and shouted, “Hooray!”

We tried to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The great blue sky so swallowed up the strained voices that I could not know how many different keys I struck.

Editor's note: Monday is Memorial Day, a day to remember U.S. men and women who died while in the military service. It is a legal federal holiday.

Friday Harbor’s Memorial Day Parade begins at 10 a.m. in front of Vic’s Drive-In. The parade will continue to Spring Street, then to Memorial Park.

The parade will be followed by the decoration of veterans’ at the island’s cemeteries, and a potluck luncheon at American Legion Post 163.

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