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The Forgotten Tragedy That Created Father’s Day

Father's Day wasn't created to sell greetings cards or neckties. It was a memorial to one of the greatest tragedies in American history.

Photograph by U.S. Bureau of Mines, courtesy Mine Safety and Health Administration

We live in an era of #holidays, where it seems like every day, we are being told to celebrate something completely pointless for the not so subtle purpose of whetting America’s insatiable appetite for brand awareness and mindless consumerism. National Cookie Day. National Ugly Sweater Day. Nation Pet Day. And with Father’s Day rapidly approaching, you could be tempted to lump it in with the rest of these disingenuous celebrations and just assume it’s a fake holiday concocted by Hallmark to sell greeting cards, right?

Wrong. The origins of Father’s Day are very genuine, tinged with sadness and can be specifically traced back to a little town in West Virginia called Monogah.

On December 6, 1907, 367 men were working in Fairmont Coal Company mines when, unexpectedly, an explosion occurred which killed an estimated 362 of the miners, with only four escaping and one being rescued by those who came to help. Sadly, the four who escaped later died due to injuries related to the incident. The Monongah Mining Disaster is widely considered “the worst mining disaster in American History” and devastated the surrounding Fairmont community, as it estimated that over 1,000 children lost their fathers.

The idea of the town having a day to honor fathers began with Mrs. Grace Golden Clayton, who approached her minister at William’s Memorial Methodist Episcopal Chruch South with her plan. While Clayton had not lost her father during the mining explosion, she was deeply affected by his death in 1896, which caused her to feel great sympathy for those who had lost their fathers.

“It was partly the explosion that set me to think how important and loved most fathers are. All those lonely children and the heart-broken wives and mothers, made orphans and widows in a matter of a few minutes. Oh, how sad and frightening to have no father, no husband, to turn to at such a sad time,” Clayton told a local newspaper at the time.

The Father’s Day service was held at Williams Memorial on July 5, 1908, as it was close to Clayton’s father’s birthday. But according to Reverend D.D. Meighen, “The day came and passed without much fanfare.” Meighen was a longtime pastor at Central United Methodist, which eventually replaced William’s Memorial, and he’s also a bit of a Fairmont historian, having done extensive research into the community’s unique and tragic connection to Father’s Day. He says there are a variety of reasons the day didn’t gain much traction in Fairmont, including its closeness to the Fourth of July and the death of Lucy Billingsly, the daughter of a prominent family in town, occurring the night before.

“As a result, Fairmont never adopted any resolutions to make Father’s Day a part of its town’s history,” Meighen explained.

While Fairmont has received some credit for its prominent role in the history of celebrating dads, including being recognized by Hallmark and getting a shoutout in Maymie Kryth’s All About American Holidays, credit for the first Father’s Day is primarily attributed to Spokane, Washington, where Sonora Dodd organized a day of celebration on June 19, 1910. Why? Meighen says that unlike in Fairmont, Dodd made sure convinced her city and state to issue proclamations. So despite the fact that Father’s Day would not become an official holiday until 1972 by President Nixon, Spokane “became the place where Father’s Day is most historically associated.”

“But Fairmont was the place where the first Father’s Day event was held,” Meighen insists.

And it’s not just the rest of the world that has forgotten Fairmont’s role in founding Father’s Day. According to Meighen, the town itself mostly celebrates the day like any other town would. Some churches hold breakfasts and people give gifts and a few plaques at Central United Methodist and around town but beyond a “big commemoration” on the 100-year anniversary of the first service, Fairmont’s festivities are pretty standard. In fact, it’s mainly Meighen who keeps the memory of Monongah mining disaster alive in Fairmont.

“I’ve personally had programs at the park and we will do that again this year to promote Father’s Day,” Meighen says. “I invite people in the community to come by and share stories about their father, sing songs, read poetry, or show any art they may have done to commemorate Father’s Day.”

So this Sunday, while you’re waiting for breakfast in bed or opening up the tacky necktie you definitely didn’t ask for, perhaps take a moment to step out of the modern context of the commercialized holiday and remember one town’s unique and tragic connection to the day. Otherwise, the first Father’s Day may be left behind as a forgotten memory, washed away by the waves of time.