A special ceremony that recognizes Armed Forces Day, Peace Officers Memorial Day and Memorial Day in a single event will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday at Mount Union Cemetery. Organizer Eric Niemann has put together a program that features remembrances, history, ROTC cadets, horses, trumpets, singing and more, including the placement of flags on the gravesites of veterans.
The event dates back to 2015 when local Cub Scouts and Oregon State ROTC cadets gathered on a windy Thursday evening before Memorial Day weekend to place flags on the Mount Union Cemetery grave sites of veterans.
In the years since, Niemann has expanded the ceremony to bring attention to Armed Forces Day and Peace Officers Memorial Day. A few years ago, the Benton County Sheriff’s Office Mounted Posse became a part of the program with its moving tributes.
The number of people attending the event has grown over the past couple of years.
“I think as more people discovered the history of the cemetery and the story and understood the events that they’ve been interested in participating,” Niemann said.
Niemann’s motivation behind planning the event each year goes back to his childhood years when living near Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, a community that claims to be one of the founders of Memorial Day. Niemann himself is a military veteran, stresses patriotism and appreciates the history of Mount Union Ceremony. Plus, it’s a way to involve the community in something that he believes has great value.
“I think those are all things that pull on my heart and push me to keep doing it,” Niemann said.
Each year, Niemann chooses a fallen soldier or peace officer with Philomath or Benton County connections to be featured in the program. On Saturday, Niemann will share the story of Jimmy Appelgate, a member of the Benton County Sheriff’s Office Mounted Posse who was killed in 1955.
The BCSO Mounted Posse’s appearance will include a riderless horse with boots placed backward in the stirrups, which is symbolic of Appelgate as a fallen posse member. Participants will bring in a red, white and blue wreath in his memory.
A blue and white wreath will also be presented in remembrance of OSU Air Force ROTC cadet Mackenzie Wilson, who was killed last year in Idaho at age 19 just a month after participating in the Philomath ceremony as a member of the color guard, and Enrique Espinoza, an 18-year-old ROTC cadet at Oregon State who was killed in February by a drunk driver.
A black, red and green wreath for local pioneer Reuben Shipley, who donated land that helped establish the cemetery in 1861, will be placed at his grave site by Philomath High student Jaxon Allen, the son of a Marine Corps veteran. Marilyn Keller will sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during that portion of the ceremony.
The event will also include the retirement and raising of the colors, a history of Mount Union Cemetery by Erin Haynes and Keller’s singing of “Amazing Grace.”
Small groups will then place flags on the more than 200 gravesites of veterans — a particular activity that has taken place since the first year.
“Memorial Day started as Decoration Day with flowers and things that were placed upon graves and it eventually evolved into flags,” Niemann said. “So I think it goes back to the roots of how Memorial Day first started and it’s just a good way to involve the community in actually remembering those veterans.”
Last weekend, Mount Union Cemetery Association members and other local volunteers prepared the grounds for this weekend’s event, including the placement of sticks to mark the location of veterans’ gravesites to help flag-placement volunteers find them more easily.
The event will take place on the actual Armed Forces Day, which falls on the third Saturday of May each year. Peace Officers Memorial Day occurred earlier this week on Tuesday. Memorial Day will be May 29.
The cemetery is located at 2987 Mount Union Ave.