The nation’s first Father’s Day service was held in response to a terrible disaster in the early 20th century that, unfortunately, would have been very relatable to the residents of Cambria County at the time.
On Dec. 6, 1907, a methane gas explosion occurred in Fairmont Coal Co.’s No. 6 and No. 8 mines, located in Monongah, West Virginia, killing more than 360 men in the country’s worst mining disaster ever. The tragedy left about
1,000 children fatherless. Grace Golden Clayton, a Monongah resident, came up with the idea to honor the fathers with a ceremony at Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church on July 5, 1908.
“It was partly the explosion that set me to think how important and loved most fathers are,” Clayton told a local newspaper. “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.”
Johnstown knew similar pain.
Just five years earlier, on July 10, 1902, an explosion at Rolling Mill Mine killed 112 workers, including immigrants from Poland, Slovakia and England, many living in the city’s Cambria City neighborhood.
Fathers, brothers, sons, uncles, friends, breadwinners, men who financially supported loved ones back in the old country … all gone.
“It was devastating,” Johnstown Area Heritage Association President Richard Burkert said.
In the early 1900s, families that did well financially would often have a mother earning income, possibly by taking in boarders, with sons working in mills and mines, and daughters doing jobs such as cigar rolling, according to Burkert.
As he explained, “You couldn’t really get ahead based on the male head of household’s wages, but if you didn’t have that, the whole economic foundation typically gave way.”
A white-and-black historical marker commemorates the first Father’s Day service held in West Virginia.
But the event itself gained little attention when it occurred.
The ceremony was overshadowed by a Fourth of July celebration – with a tightrope walker and hot air balloon – that attracted 12,000 people to Fairmont, and the death of Lucy Billingslea, a popular 21-year-old woman of the Williams Memorial Church’s congregation.
No formal proclamations were issued to recognize the day honoring fathers.
Williams Memorial did not hold a Father’s Day in the immediate succeeding years.
On June 19, 1910, a Father’s Day event was held at the YMCA in Spokane, Washington, complete with official proclamations. It was founded by Sonora Smart Dodd, one of six children raised by Civil War veteran William Jackson Smart, a single father.
Dodd’s event gained more momentum and attention – even receiving recognition from President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 – than the Fairmont Coal Company gathering.
Nowadays, the Spokane service is more widely considered the beginning of Father’s Day in the United States than is Clayton’s ceremony in West Virginia.
Father’s Day was made a permanent national holiday in 1972.