The precursor of Father’s Day was inspired by a tragic accident

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Modern celebrations of Father’s Day are marked by cookouts, celebrations and, often, the selfless giving of tools and neckties. But the very first “day” dedicated solely to dads was a much more somber event. (Getty Images)

(NEXSTAR) – Modern celebrations of Father’s Day are marked by cookouts, celebrations and often the selfless giving of tools and neckties. But the very first “day” dedicated solely to dads was a much more somber event.

Historical accounts of the earliest “official” Father’s Day celebrations credit Sonora Smart Dodd, of Washington state, with the idea. In 1910, she successfully petitioned the Spokane Ministerial Alliance to recognize fathers with their own service, which was observed that June at several churches across the city.

Dodd’s inspiration, she said, was none other than her own father, who raised her and her siblings alone after the death of her mother.

The Spokane services, however, came nearly two years after the first Sunday service dedicated specifically to fathers. In 1908, the town of Fairmont, West Virginia, held its own observance for dad, but for entirely different reasons than Dodd.

In December of the previous year, an explosion rocked a nearby coal mine in Monongah, West Virginia, claiming the lives of several hundred workers, many of whom were fathers. The death toll from the tragic accident — which came to be recognized as the worst mining disaster “in American history,” according to the Library of Congress — inspired a young woman named Grace Golden Clayton to ask her local minister to set aside a Sunday service in remembrance of the deceased dads.

“It was partly the explosion that set me to think how important and loved most fathers are,” Clayton said in a later interview, according to Pennsylvania’s Tribune-Democrat. Clayton, too, had lost her own father shortly before the accident.

On July 5, 1908, the Williams Memorial Church in Fairmont hosted what is now considered to be the first observance specifically for fathers. It wasn’t intended to be annual, and it didn’t make much of an impact at the time (the event itself was overshadowed by Fairmont’s Fourth of July celebrations and the death of a local woman, according to the Tribune-Democrat), but the date has since become a point of pride in Marion County, West Virginia.

Today, a historical marker stands just outside of the church, commemorating “where Father’s Day was first observed” and giving special credit to Clayton for the idea. The roadside sign that welcomes visitors to Fairmont even calls the town “Home to the First Father’s Day Service,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Dodd’s version of Father’s Day, meanwhile, is the one that eventually caught on. But it’s likely that Clayton would have approved, as Dodd insisted on honoring both living and deceased fathers at her first Father’s Day event in Spokane — by instructing those who lost their fathers to wear white flowers, while those with living fathers wore red, according to Spokane’s Spokesman-Review.  

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