George Washington’s birthday on February 22 was celebrated publicly for the first time in the late eighteenth century, while Washington was still president. In 1885 President Chester A. Arthur signed a bill making it a federal holiday. Both before and after that date patriotic celebrations were regularly held by Nebraska veterans, civic organizations, and students to honor the first U.S. president.
Washington’s birthday was a “holiday peculiarly suitable for observance at school,” wrote the Nebraska superintendent of public instruction in his biennial report for 1895-96. “No occasion will afford better opportunity to impress important truths of history, to illustrate elements of noble character and to inspire sentiments of genuine patriotism. The thoughtful and earnest teacher will always find in such occasions a means of securing a personal hold upon the pupils, and of increasing their pride and interest in the school-the surest way to enrich the school course, to make its exercises fruitful, and its results enduring.”
A student celebration was described in a letter to the Central Union Agriculturist and Missouri Valley Farmer (Omaha) in April 1873: “Waterloo, Douglas Co., Neb., February 24th, 1873. MR. EDITOR: On the 21st I attended a celebration of Washington’s birthday at Waterloo. Mr. W. Wright, the teacher of Waterloo district, sent invitations to all the teachers and schools in the west end of the county to join with his school in celebrating Washington’s birthday; and as the 22d came on Saturday, the celebration was held on Friday, the 21st, school day. The meeting was well attended, several schools were well represented by teachers and scholars, and the meeting was a perfect success.
“At 1:30 P.M. exercises began. Mr. Wright made a general address to the schools, speaking at length on the subject of Washington and his birthday. The exercises consisted of recitation, singing and dialogues, all of which were appropriate to the occasion.”
The February 28, 1890, Chadron Advocate said of a GAR gathering on Washington’s birthday: “G.A.R. Hall was too small to accommodate the crowd last Saturday night and the post celebration and supper was held in the court room. The house was well filled with old soldiers and their families, besides a plentiful sprinkling of others. The audience was called to order by Post Commander Powers who made an address reminding the hearers that it was appropriate for the soldiers of the late war to celebrate the birthday of Washington.”
Nebraska City’s Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall, now on the National Register of Historic Places. The GAR was a major supporter of celebrations honoring patriotic and military figures such as George Washington. NSHS Historic Preservation OT06:A-042