When it was first conceived after the Civil War, Memorial Day..or Decoration Day as it was called for the next 100 years, was supposed to be a time for paying tribute to Americans killed in war.
In my lifetime, though, it’s come to mean honoring “all” who have died by making trips to the cemetery to decorate the graves of family members or friends.
So, with that somber background, I suppose it’s sort of unpatriotic to think of Memorial Day as “party time”..but I do.
Oh, come on. I’m not the only one. Even the federal government made it a Monday holiday so folks could have a three day weekend to enjoy a ballgame, camping trip, backyard barbeque, car races or the lake.
For over 20 years, Lake Madison was my Memorial Day destination…not to go boating, fishing or playing in the water but to be an honored member of the Smith Park big band.
For as long as anyone can remember, Frank and Marlys Johnson operated Smith Park Resort. Located on the East side of the lake, it consisted of a few dozen trailer houses, a boat landing and, of course, the tavern.
Inside the narrow long structure was a bar, several booths, a pool table, an old piano, a Hammond organ and a juke box.
Frank Johnson loved music and lots of the people that spent their summers at his park were musicians. On special occasions, like Memorial Day, they’d bring their instruments over and jam.
The pool table would be pushed aside and the place would be packed as the music and dancing went on late into the night. (L to R: Maxine Smith, Marion (Smitty) Smith, Kenny Rahn, me, Frannie Peckham, Orcella Peckham)I got my first chance to play with the band in the late 70’s becoming a full fledged regular a few years later.
Usually about 8 to 10 musicians would show up but once I counted 16.. all crammed into the back playing familiar big band songs just for the fun of it and the free beers Frank provided to everyone who sat in.
(Playing and singing the day and night away on Memorial Day)At 5 O’Clock, everybody took a break and headed outside for a pot luck picnic..the food provided by anyone and everyone. There was always plenty.
In the spring of 1997, the fun came to a soggy stop as high water flooded the old tavern.
The hardwood floor was ruined and it looked like the Memorial Day tradition was over.
But the lake people would have none of that and joined together to rebuild the place for Frank and Marlys.
The shaky structure was stabilized, a new floor was poured and indoor rest rooms were installed. (Women no longer had to grab a few sheets of toilet paper from the roll by the back door before heading out to the biff)
Smith’s Park had been saved.
But all good things eventually come to an end and after Frank Johnson passed away, it was hard for his family to keep the place going. So after one final Memorial Day big band jam session the doors were locked forever three years ago. New homes and condominiums now surround the little hall.
There’s been some talk of organizing a Smith Park Big Band reunion at some other location near the lake but I’m not so sure it will happen.
So many of the wonderful people who threw the original party are gone.