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W.Va. town claims first Father's Day celebration

Sunday, June 15, 2003

FAIRMONT, W.Va. -- In the summer of 1908, the story goes, sadness ran so deep it just had to be shared.

As the birthday of her own late father neared, 41-year-old Grace Golden Clayton was thinking about loss -- her own at first, then those of the children around her.

More than 1,000 were newly fatherless, their lives blown apart a few months earlier in nearby Monongah by the worst coal mining disaster in American history. Of the 361 men killed in the Dec. 6, 1907, blast, some 250 were fathers.

Fathers who should be remembered and honored with their own special day, Clayton decided.

So she made it happen.

"This holiday was one etched in sadness as well as thankfulness," says the Rev. Donald Meighen, pastor of Central United Methodist Church, which now stands where Father's Day was celebrated for the first time.

People in this small, north-central West Virginia city don't take credit for making Father's Day a national tradition. They acknowledge that 95 years ago, residents didn't even try to spread the word beyond the town line.

Now, they want people to know that the holiday started here.

Since 1985, when the state erected a black and white historical marker declaring Fairmont the birthplace of Father's Day, "we rested on our laurels," Meighen says. "We had not taken it to the next level."

The congregation of Central United Methodist took a special offering earlier this year and commissioned "Curse Not the Darkness," a play about Clayton and the Monongah mine disaster.

In May, the church opened a room with a small collection of artifacts that could become the foundation of a Father's Day museum. And Meighen is planning programs to help men become better fathers.

Thomas Koon, president of the Marion County Historical Society, is happy to see it. He set out years ago to get Clayton the recognition she deserves and right what he says is a long-standing wrong.

The woman often credited with starting Father's Day is Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Wash. In 1909, she sought a special day to honor her father, who became a single parent when his wife died giving birth to their sixth child.

That service was held in Spokane on the third Sunday in June 1910, and by the following year, there was a similar celebration in Portland, Ore. Chicago followed in 1915, Miami four years after that.

By 1924, President Coolidge supported the idea of a national holiday, and in 1956, Congress passed a joint resolution recognizing Father's Day.

President Johnson signed a Father's Day proclamation in 1966, and President Nixon made it permanent in 1972.

Yet Koon says it all started with Clayton and that first service -- which wasn't even in June. Hers fell on July 5, 1908, the Sunday nearest the birthday of her father, Methodist minister Fletcher Golden.

Though unique, the service was overshadowed by events that competed for the community's attention.

An Independence Day festival drew 12,000 people to town with a hot-air balloon show, circus-style performers and politicians giving impassioned speeches to launch their campaigns.

The congregation also was coping with the death of a teenage girl from typhoid fever, Meighen says. Her father, a prominent businessman, arranged a funeral procession with 20-horse drawn carriages, and the mourning lasted four days.

Shortly afterward, the church was damaged by mine subsidence and shut down for several months.

"They had other things on their mind," Koon says. "The original sermon was lost. ... It just seems as though no one thought it was a great deal at the time.

"No one jumped on the bandwagon and went to the City Council for a proclamation. No one got on the governor. No one went to Congress," he says. "Mrs. Clayton apparently thought it was not ladylike for someone to go out and toot their own horn."

That's true, says 80-year-old Josephine Cottrill of Clarksburg, Clayton's great-niece. Cottrill attends the church's Father's Day service every year in Clayton's honor.

"She was a tall, stately woman, with gray hair piled on her head," Cottrill recalled. "She was very quiet."

Some speculate Clayton may have been partly inspired by fellow West Virginian Anna Jarvis, whose own crusade created Mother's Day.

Jarvis lobbied businessmen, politicians and clergy after her mother died in 1905, eventually holding the first Mother's Day service in Grafton in May 1908.

Koon figures Sonora Dodd must have been like Jarvis.

"Instead of doing what Fairmont did and dropping the ball, she went out ... and beat on doors and kicked up enough of a fuss to get people to say, 'This is a good idea.' Or, 'We need to shut this woman up,"' he says with a laugh. "Take your pick."

Fairmont is happy to credit Dodd with her efforts, Koon says. He just wants people to know she wasn't the first.

"It did not become a national holiday until a number of other people chewed on it like a pit bull," he says. "It took a lot of people a lot of work over a lot of years."


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