The first Memorial Day, as we know it, was held 150 years ago on May 30th, 1868. This holiday began after the American Civil War as “Decoration Day,” a ceremony to place flowers on the graves of those who had given their lives in America's bloodiest war. Here in Frederick, it would quickly evolve into one of Mount Olivet Cemetery’s busiest days of visitation. This fact continues to this day, however, veterans of multiple 20th century world wars and worldly conflicts are also honored—now on the last Monday of May each year.
Mystery surrounds the origin of this custom. One version credits Southern women who began decorating graves in 1865. On May 1st, 1865, a Northern abolitionist named James Redpath, who had come to Charleston, South Carolina to organize schools for freed slaves, led black children to a cemetery for Union soldiers killed in the fighting nearby to scatter flowers on their graves.
Congress awarded the village of Waterloo, NY the distinction for holding the first Memorial Day, however this is also questionable. Union veterans apparently decorated the graves of fallen comrades on May 5th, 1866 but this wasn’t originally designed to be an annual tradition, just something that would be nice to do a year after the war’s end. We will get to “1868” in a moment, but here’s what was happening in Frederick’s historic “garden” cemetery.
Hundreds of Union soldiers once had Frederick’s Mount Olivet Cemetery as their first original “resting place.” Many would be dis-interred and moved to Antietam National Cemetery in Sharpsburg in 1868. By in large, most all of the Confederate soldiers that died in local hospitals and buried in Mount Olivet would remain so for eternity. In fact the number (of Confederates) in Mount Olivet actually grew significantly higher a decade and a half after the Civil War.
In the South, women formed Ladies Memorial Associations to dis-inter soldiers from nearby battlefields and rebury them locally with dignity. Frederick had one such group, responsible for spearheading a drive to bring to the cemetery more than 408 former Southern soldiers originally buried on the farms and environs that made up the Battle of Monocacy (fought on July 9th, 1864.) The remains of these men were buried in a mass grave, placed at the end of a row containing 311 Confederate graves.
The Ladies Monumental Association of Frederick also erected a statue to symbolically stand guard over these Southern soldiers numbering over 700. Associations of these kinds became the sponsors of Confederate Memorial Days, which varied in date according to the height of the local flower season, from April in the Deep South to late May in Virginia.
On the “northern” flipside, Gen. John A. Logan of Illinois founded the Grand Army of the Republic in 1866. This entity grew into a politically powerful veterans' organization consisting of former Union soldiers and sailors. In 1868, Logan ordered all G.A.R. posts to decorate the graves of Union soldiers on May 30th, the optimum time for flowers in the North. That first year, 103 posts held Memorial Day services, a number that grew to 336 in 1869 and continued to increase afterwards. Now we had a solid holiday in hand. What soon became known as Memorial Day spread to towns, cities and crossroads communities in both North and South. Interestingly, Waterloo, NY changed their decoration date to May 30th in 1868—“chicken, or the egg,” I ask.
Meanwhile, a short distance away, another solemn memorial ceremony would begin at 3pm in a home located just blocks from the cemetery on W. South Street. This was the funeral of 12-year-old Charles A. Poole, Jr. The boy had been killed two days prior in one of Frederick City’s worst accidental tragedies. Thankfully the event, known as the Zeller’s Store explosion, would only claim one life—it could have easily taken many more.
Charles Edward Zellers was a 37 year-old merchant who ran a grocery store on the northeast corner of S. Market and E. South St. A native of Frederick City, he was the son of German immigrants John Frederick and Dorothea Zellers. The Zellers arrived in the US from Odelsheim, Hesse-Cassel (Prussia) in the year1853.
Born November 7th, 1850, Charles was one of four children and attended local schools in town. He grew up on E. South Street , near today's intersection with S. Carroll, and would eventually wed Mary E. Baer in 1875. They would have eventually have eight children, although three never reached adulthood.
Mr. Zellers was a dealer in groceries, liquors, provisions, and dinner plates and accessories ranging from wood ware, queens ware, china and willow ware. His store was located on the northeast corner of S. Market and E. South streets. He had occupied this location for years, perhaps as early as 1880, if not earlier.
Young Charles A. Poole, Jr. lived in the vicinity of the store on S. Market St., and later W. South St. in Frederick. In the spring of 1888, the 12 year-old house carpenter’s son of was in the employ of Charles Zellers, working at the market. On that fateful day of May 28th, young Charles Poole made a mistake which would cost him his life. It almost cost the lives of several townspeople as well, however this would not be the case. The heroes of the day involved several local fire companies who contained the blaze and administered care to the wounded sea of bystanders.
Here is the story as told by the Frederick Daily News edition of May 29th, 1888:
“One of the most terrible disasters that has ever occurred in this city happened last evening at quarter of seven o’ clock. The result is the destruction of the extensive retail grocery store of Charles Edward Zellers, situated at the northeast corner of Market and South streets, the killing of Charles A. Poole, Jr., a lad of about 11 years and the injury of upward of seventy men, white and colored, ranging in age from twelve to sixty years. About half past six last evening, Mr. Zellers sent a young lad employed at the store to draw five gallons of gasoline from a barrel in the cellar beneath the rear warehouse. It is stated that the lad in the endeavoring to use a lantern for the purpose of performing the duty upon which he had been sent accidentally ignited some of the gasoline that had leaked from the barrel. The lad immediately rushed from the cellar and an alarm of fire was given. Smoke issued from the windows of the cellar and soon filled the store room and adjoining house. The family of Mr. Zellers was promptly removed from the building.
The general alarm of fire which had been sounded brought the members of the three fire departments on the scene with their apparatus. The first stream of water had hardly been thrown before a low rumbling sound, followed by a terrible sharp concussion, told the terrible story of one of the explosion usual in the case of fires at such places, where combustible material is stored in the cellar for sale. Of the ten or fifteen barrels of oil, gasoline and whiskey in the cellar at the time it is believed that all exploded but five or six. The wall of the warehouse fronting on South Street was laid over into the street, the roof was thrown back into the yard, the entire lower front of the building, consisting of heavy plate glass doors and windows was hurled in small atoms across Market Street into the midst of a crowd of spectators.
Scarcely had the noise, dust and smoke of the explosion cleared away that the air was filled with the cries of frightened and weeping women, calling for their sons, husbands and brothers. For the space of 15 minutes, the scene was one of the utmost sadness and horror and many of the brave men who had entered the building to fight the flames emerged from the ruins cut, bruised and with broken limbs, while the groans of those who had been caught in the debris could be heard for half a square. As soon as possible the work of rescuing the injured and dying was commenced. The houses of those residing in the neighborhood were thrown open to the unfortunates and as soon as the physicians of the city could be summoned, the work of caring for the wounded began. On all sides the expression was that of horror. It is quite certain that the people of quiet Frederick were never before witnesses to so severe a catastrophe.”
(NOTE: I've included another article with more on the aftermath of the event at the end of this blog).
Charles A. Poole, Jr. had made it up from the basement and sounded the warning to others. Sadly he was killed when struck by falling debris from the explosion. His neck was broken. Although initial reports predicted more fatalities, this did not come to fruition. It was estimated that nearly 110 people were treated by local physicians, including 31 members of the United Fire Company, the first responders to the scene. One of these was Uncle Joe Walling, the featured star of an earlier "Stories in Stone" writing from 2017. Walling was the man who made several cross-country treks by foot and horse.
Poole's body would be brought to Mount Olivet from his home on W. South Street. His burial occurred amidst the Memorial Day related exercises being held at Mount Olivet on that day in late May, 1888.
Along the way through my research, I found it fitting that Poole’s father was a Union veteran with Company E of the 11th Maryland Infantry Regiment. Dying in October of 1933, the elder Poole would live to endure 45 "memorial days" marking his son's premature death. He would join his son in the family lot within the cemetery’s Area P. Wife Victoria would follow a year later.
As for Charles Zellers, both his commercial building and merchandise had been under-insured. The day after the catastrophe, a team of volunteers worked carefully to remove debris on the premises. Zellers needed to reopen as fast as possible. He would do this, and it was reported in the newspaper that a special cornerstone was placed that included photographs and newspaper accounts of the May disaster. Zellers and wife Mary continued to run the downtown market until the early 1900’s. They would relocate to Baltimore in 1909. Charles E. Zellers lived to be 70, and his body returned to Frederick for burial at Mount Olivet in 1921. (Area R/Lot 27).
I've deducted that the original family farm of Charles E. Zeller's parents (John Frederick and Dorothea Zellers) was located just east of the intersection of E. South and S. Carroll streets near the FCPS Headquarters. A mortgage record shows that the family built 6 townhouses on the south side of E. South St. almost to the brickyard property of B.F. Winchester @1875. This was commonly referred to as "Zeller's Row."
Aftermath article from the Frederick News (May 30, 1888), giving updates on many of the townspeople injured in the Zeller's Store explosion.
Special thanks to "Jeep" Abrecht, Jr. for his great assistance with this story.