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Old Fashioned Memorial Day Parade, Monday

Joseph Purnell rides in a Memorial Day Parade in Berlin during the 1960s. The Old Fashioned Memorial Day Parade returns to the town on Monday, starting at 11 a.m. on Flower Street.

A poster shows off happenings at the Berlin Memorial Day Parade, circa 1936.

By Josh Davis, Associate Editor

(May 24, 2018) For decades in the borough sometimes known as East Berlin, the Old Fashioned Memorial Day Parade was an important cultural event, akin to a second Christmas, according to co-organizer Gregory Purnell of the Berlin Community Improvement Association committee that sponsors the annual event.

“For the last 60 years – probably more – the Duncan-Showell American Legion has used this week before Memorial Day and the Memorial Day holiday to commemorate the veterans who have gone on – and they go all out,” Purnell said.

This week, Legion members and other volunteers will place more than 300 flags in area cemeteries before ceremonies on Sunday and Monday.

“All of the members … will get a flag. As long as we know that they’re a veteran, they’ll get a flag,” Purnell said. “This is just something that has always been done. The older guys taught us how to do it and why they do it, and we’ve just followed through.”

Memorial Day Services are scheduled on Sunday at 8 a.m. at the downtown memorial on the corner of Main Street and Baker Street, and at 10 a.m. at the Saint Paul United Methodist Church on Flower Street.

During the Saint Paul service, Legion members will read the names of “maybe a couple hundred” deceased veterans associated with the Duncan-Showell Post 231, Purnell said.

“We’ll read off all those names, then we’ll fire off the gun salute, blow ‘Taps.’ After that, they’ll disperse and usually come to the post and have a little dinner,” Purnell said.

Remembrances are also planned in area cemeteries on Monday, starting in Whaleyville at 8 a.m. and traveling to the Curtis United Methodist Church in Bishopville, Fooks Cemetery on Route 611, New Bethel Cemetery in Germantown, and Saint Paul Cemetery on Bay Street in Berlin.

Purnell said it means “more than you know” to see people just show up and remember those who served and who sacrificed.

“There’s a certain pride that comes with knowing that their family member was a veteran. But it really comes to them when they hear those ‘Taps’ or those shots – that three-gun salute,” Purnell said. “The first one you hear startles you, but the next ones you could hear a pin drop.

“It means a lot to those people, because you’re celebrating them,” he added. “We’re inviting everyone to come honor those vets and we’re trying to make those ceremonies meaningful to all of the veteran families, regardless of which war or battle, and also to honor those serving now.”

The finale, the annual Old Fashioned Memorial Day Parade, will start at 11 a.m. on Monday at Stephen Decatur Middle School and travel southwest on Flower Street to a staging area near Dr. William Henry Park. Free parking is available in a lot opposite the park.

This year, the parade will honor Korean War veterans from Berlin and members of the VFW Post 10159 from Salisbury. The Salisbury contingent has “been in every parade” during the last 22 years, Purnell said.

The event will also recognize former parade organizer Jesse Turner, who passed away last year.

“We’re always going to honor him, but the real honorees are the Korean War veterans,” Purnell said. “I can tell you it’s going to be more of a turnout this year, because of those veterans.”

Berlin Mayor Gee Williams will ride near the front of the procession and stop to say a few words at the stage near Henry Park.

Purnell said the parade dates to around the 1930s, when Isaiah Fassett, a Civil War veteran, would march in the parade and attendees would come from as far away as Philadelphia.

“Memorial Day was another Christmas,” Purnell said. “It was celebrated just that much in this community.”

He said the old route, perhaps five miles long, started at the Saint Paul Church on Flower Street, went to Bay Street, then through Germantown to Tyree Church, then back through town on Main Street, to the cemetery on Tripoli Street, and finally down Branch Street and back to the start.

“The parade went that way every year when I was a kid,” Purnell. “And you would always get a brand-new pair of dungarees and a brand-new pair of sneakers for Decoration Day [now Memorial Day].”

He remembers practicing the trumpet during music class and again during a study hall period, twice a day every day, in preparation for the parade.

“When Memorial Day came, [the teacher] let us march in the front of the parade. It was the proudest day – wearing that gold cape with the white shirt, black tie and black pants, and blowing that trumpet – man!” Purnell said.

“You used to say ‘Decoration Day’ and you got people’s attention. Decoration Day has always been in the blood of people who grew up in this community, and that is why they call it the ‘Old Fashioned Memorial Day Parade,’ because they’re trying to rekindle that spirit,” he added.

The parade stalled out and was not held for about 1015 years, but was later revived by Turner and Sandra Oliver during the mid-1990s.

“And once they did that, then we started to have 10-15 units. Now we have 30 units and we’re trying to get more floats and we’re trying to organize it better, and in Jesse’s honor we’re trying to make it a parade parade – not just people coming through,” Purnell said.

“I want to get it out and I want people there, but I also want people to take a minute to pause and remember … it kind of rekindles that spirit,” he said.

Purnell said the American Legion Duncan-Showell Post 231 is always looking for new members. For more information, contact Membership Chairman Kenny Morris at 410-641-3481.