Fairmont stakes its claim to Father's Day



FAIRMONT, W.Va. -- If you believe the mainstream media, the White House, the greeting card industry and the city of Spokane, Wash., today is the 100th anniversary of Father's Day.

But the fine people of this town 90 miles south of Pittsburgh have a different story to tell -- one about the beginning of Father's Day here 102 years ago.

"We continue to make the claim and stake out the claim that while we don't get national recognition for the beginning of Father's Day, we have proof ... that Fairmont observed the first Father's Day service in the world," said the Rev. D.D. Meighen, a retired minister who has researched the subject extensively.

The sign on the way into Fairmont proclaims "Welcome to Fairmont -- the Friendly City -- Home of the First Father's Day Service."

The story of Fairmont's first Father's Day is also the story of the worst mine disaster in American history, at the Monongah Mine about five miles from Fairmont.

On Dec. 6, 1907, a methane gas explosion caused fires and cave-ins that blocked exits from the mine, trapping and killing 362 men and leaving more than 1,000 children fatherless.

The impact on nearby Fairmont was devastating: "All Hope Is Gone," read the headline on the next day's Fairmont Times. The Fairmont Free Press noted that "There was not a town resident who did not feel the concussion."

As the town grappled with ways to help families affected by the explosion, a woman named Grace Golden Clayton came up with the idea for a church service to commemorate fathers.

"All those lonely children and those heart-broken wives and mothers, made orphans and widows in a matter of a few minutes," she was quoted as saying by former Marion County historian Glenn Lough. "Oh, how sad and frightening to have no father, no husband, to turn to at such an awful time."

Mrs. Clayton's own father had died in 1890, and she still missed him immensely. So she planned the service at the Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church for July 5, 1908 -- the Sunday closest to her father's birthday.

She may also have been inspired by the first observation of Mother's Day, held two months before in Grafton, W.Va., just 20 miles from Fairmont.

But while Grafton has received popular credit for the creation of Mother's Day, Spokane usually is recognized as the place Father's Day started.

There, a woman named Sonora Smart Dodd came up with the idea for a celebration to honor her father, who raised her and her five younger brothers after her mother died.

She intended for her Father's Day event to be held near her father's birthday on June 5, but the town's pastors wanted more time to prepare. So on June 19, the Ministerial Alliance and the Spokane YMCA celebrated their first Father's Day.

Meanwhile, in Fairmont -- also the birthplace of pepperoni rolls and Olympic gold medalist Mary Lou Retton -- the first Father's Day sermon had been somewhat overshadowed.

"The reason that Fairmont doesn't get national recognition," said Rev. Meighen, "is because of two events that happened the day before."

To celebrate July 4, Fairmont had held its largest public event in history, when 12,000 people gathered to watch a tightrope walker and a hot air balloon. Later that evening, a young and popular member of the Williams Memorial Church, Lucy Billingslea, died after a "critical illness."

And so distracted by other events, said Rev. Meighen, "no one felt the desire to follow through to convince the city of Fairmont or the state of West Virginia to issue a proclamation establishing an annual Father's Day -- an unfortunate omission."

The day is now quite meaningful to the city of Fairmont, with past observances including the performance of a commissioned play, the display of a special quilt and other activities. But Rev. Meighen has been surprised to find that it didn't seem to make quite as much of an impression on Mrs. Clayton herself.

In all of his historical research, he said, he hasn't found any of her family members who recall her mentioning the event to them.

Though Williams Memorial did not have a Father's Day sermon the next year, it did have annual sermons dating at least back to 1917, he said. For reasons he hasn't been able to figure out, the service was moved to the third Sunday in June.

Year by year, the idea of a nationally recognized Father's Day slowly gained steam in the early part of the 20th century, with President Calvin Coolidge recognizing Father's Day in 1924 and urging states to do so as well.

Fairmont's role in hosting the first Father's Day service was nearly forgotten until the 1960s, when Congress began to discuss the establishment of an official Father's Day holiday.

In 1962, Fairmont resident Ward Downs wrote a letter to then-Rep. Arch Moore sharing his memories of Fairmont's Father's Day service.

"I recall the occasion very distinctly as the pulpit was decorated by having ripened sheaves of wheat placed about it," he wrote.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed a bill assigning the nation's official Father's Day holiday to the third Sunday of June -- not the first one in July, as had originally been observed in Fairmont.

The July date was likely too close to the July 4 holiday, Rev. Meighen noted.

Mr. Downs, who has since died, embarked on a campaign for national recognition of Fairmont's role in establishing Father's Day -- succeeding in 1984 in getting Hallmark cards to send a letter recognizing Fairmont's observance.

Williams Memorial was razed in 1922 when a new church, Central United Methodist, was built a block away, at the intersection of Fairmont Avenue and Third Street.

In the mid-1980s, plaques and historical markers were placed on the church sites commemorating the role of Williams Memorial in starting Father's Day. Every year on this day, the Sunday sermon features the story.

Rev. Meighen, former pastor of Central United Methodist, created a Father's Day room on the second floor of the church, filled with newspaper articles, pictures and memorabilia commemorating the event. Outside the room is a Hall of History with more information about Father's Day and the church.

In part for his work on Father's Day, he won a West Virginia History Heroes award this year.

"Being a history major in college, I wanted to keep the tradition alive," he said. "Spokane is given credit for making Father's Day a national holiday, but Fairmont is the place where Father's Day originated."


Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308. First Published June 20, 2010 4:00 AM


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