The United States will hold its national observance of Father's Day on Sunday, June 15, 2008, marking the Centennial of it's creation.

Most will likely have no knowledge of the origin of this special day or how it came to be observed. Some may remember that President Richard M. Nixon signed a congressional resolution in 1972 that established a national Father's Day to be observed annually on the third Sunday in June. And there may be those who assume that Father's Day was put on the calendar to supplement Mother's Day, which is established annually as the second Sunday in May.

The majority will have no knowledge of the fact that the first Father's Day observance was held on July 5, 1908, at Fairmont, West Virginia through the efforts of Mrs. Grace Golden Clayton.

The seeds of a Father’s Day Service were planted a half year before, on December 6, 1907, when a horrible mine explosion at Monongah, West Virginia, killed more than 360 men, 210 of whom were fathers. 250 widows and more than 1,000 children were left grieving.

Thoughts of these lonely persons touched Grace Clayton deeply. The Fairmont Times of September 23, 1979 shares this quote by her from Glenn Lough, Marion County Historian. “It was partly the explosion that got me to thinking how important and loved most fathers are. All those lonely children and those 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 an awful time.’ ” She suggested to her pastor, Reverend Robert Thomas Webb at Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church, South, that it would be wonderful if fathers were given a special day to be honored and remembered.

So, she suggested the Sunday closest to her father’s birthday, which would be July 5, 1908. Her father had been Reverend Fletcher Golden, a Methodist minister, who had died in 1890, and she still missed his fatherly guidance. Additional reasons may have been that, like Dr. Webb, she had lost two children in early childhood and could feel the loss those families felt in Monongah. Additionally, she may have been in the Sunday School where Hood Smith was the teacher. Hood Smith had worked with all the families of the victims in providing immediate settlement of claims.

Mother's Day may have had a small influence, which had originated some twenty miles away at Webster, West Virginia (near Grafton). The event was set for July 5, 1908. One would have thought that it would be a very dynamic program and forever remembered in the annals of Fairmont history. But, such was not the case. That was for two reasons: First, the largest gathering in Fairmont history occurred on July 4, 1908 when over 12,000 people attended a parade and festivities in the city. Highlights included a tightrope walker who rolled on a ten foot ball from the Court House to the top of what is now WestBanco. The first appearance of a hot air balloon drew much favorable comments and the newspaper story on Monday highlighted this event. The second major reason was the death of Miss Lucy Ethel Billingslea, the 21 year old adopted daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Morgan Billingslea of Locust Avenue. “whose critical illness was mentioned from time to time passed away Saturday night, July 4 at 10:40 o’clock.” (Fairmont Times, Monday, July 6, 1908) When people arrived at the church on Sunday July 5th, there must have been a great blend of joy over the 4th and then sadness over the death of this special lady, whose family was deeply committed to the church, just ten hours earlier.

Thus 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, since other persons and other locations ultimately received credit for the founding of Father's Day. Over the next several years, a number of persons in different states made an effort to found a Father's Day with a national observance. Finally such a bill was signed into law in 1972 by President Nixon.

But one church member who attended, remembered, and wrote about that service was Ward Downs. Having heard there was a movement in the United States Congress to establish a Father’s Day, he wrote on August 10, 1962 to then United States House of Representative Arch Moore the following letter.

"It has recently come to my attention of a movement establishing a Father’s Day by an act of Congress to be observed the same as Mother’s Day. It was my privilege to have attended the first Father’s Day Service July 5, 1908 at the Williams Memorial M.E. Church, South, now the Central United Methodist Church, Fairmont, WV. The sermon was preached by Dr. R.T. Webb at the request of Mrs. Charles Clayton, a member of that congregation, and daughter of a Methodist minister.

I recall the occasion very distinctly as the pulpit was decorated by having ripened sheaves of wheat placed about it. Many favorable comments by the individuals and the press were made concerning the service at that time.

Any assistance you can give this movement will be very much appreciated by me and all the Methodists in this part of the country.”

Thus, Fairmont, West Virginia does not claim to have popularized Father's Day in 1908 or even to have established it as a national holiday. Mrs. Dodd of Spokane, Washington in 1910 is given most of the credit for this day. Harry Meek in Chicago and others also lay claim to the day.

But history will show that Fairmont held the first Father's Day Service in America on July 5, 1908 at Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church, South; now known as Central United Methodist Church. And for that the history of this event is etched into our rich heritage as a faith community, as a city, county, and country

The original church building was torn down when a new church was constructed in 1922 at the southeast corner of Third Street and Fairmont Avenue and named Billingslea Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The church is now called Central United Methodist Church and Father's Day is celebrated there each year. Highway signs were erected at city entrances proclaiming 'Welcome to Fairmont - the Friendly City - Home of the First Father's Day Service, July 5, 1908". A plaque was placed on an outside church wall in 1984, and in 1985 a historical marker was erected in front of the church by the West Virginia Department of Archives and History.

In 2003 an original Father’s Day Play was presented. In 2004 Central United Methodist received the church of the year award, partially for its involvement with Father’s Day, and in 2005 a wall hanging quilt to commemorate Father’s Day was made by the Piece Makers, a group of quilters from the church. In 2002-2004 Reverend D. D. Meighen, the current minister, has presented the story of Grace Clayton, Doctor R. Thomas Webb, and the Reverend Fletcher Golden.

Reverend D. D. Meighen
June 15, 2005

With assistance from Tom Koon,
Former president of the Marion County Historical Society




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