The first Father’s Day celebrations in the United States were held over 100 years ago in communities on opposite coasts: one for coal miners in West Virginia in 1908, another for a Civil War veteran in Spokane, Washington in 1910. But despite interest from impassioned daughters and compassionate presidents of both parties, the holiday wasn’t officially placed on the calendar until 1972, almost 58 years after the creation of Mother’s Day.
The celebration in the small town of Monongah, West Virginia followed the worst coal mining disaster in American history. Some 360 men were killed on December 6, 1907, when two mines of the Fairmont Coal Company exploded. The disaster left 1,000 children fatherless and the town in deep mourning. The cause of the explosion was never discovered. In its aftermath, local Grace Golden Clayton urged her pastor to commemorate the miners.
A church organist whose own father had died a few years earlier, Clayton was burdened by the disaster and the loss of so many fathers. She asked her pastor to remember the men of the mine — including immigrants from Italy, Poland, Russia, Austria, and Turkey — with a special commemoration of fathers who had died providing for their families. The Father’s Day service was held at Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church in Fairmont, West Virginia on July 5, 1908. The altar was decorated with sheaves of ripened wheat, a symbol of resurrection.
“It was partly the explosion that set me to think how important and loved most fathers are,” Clayton recalled to a newspaper. “All those lonely children and the heartbroken 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.”
The celebration may have been influenced by the first Mother’s Day service celebrated just two months earlier, at a church less than 20 miles away. Anna Jarvis held the first celebration recognizing mothers at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church on May 10, 1908, in Grafton, West Virginia.
While the Andrews Methodist church became a shrine to mothers, the church where fathers were first celebrated in 1908 — now Central United Methodist — just bears a plaque stating, “First Father’s Day Service, Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church, South, July 5, 1908.”
This West Virginia service didn’t immediately cause the holiday to catch on. Instead, Sonora Smart Dodd — an impassioned daughter of a widowed Civil War veteran — is recognized as the “Mother of Father’s Day.”
In appreciation of her father William Jackson Smart, who lovingly raised his children alone, Dodd asked the local ministerial association in Spokane, Washington, to honor fathers. A Father’s Day celebration was held on June 19, 1910, at the Spokane YMCA.
Six years later, President Woodrow Wilson — who had made Mother’s Day official in 1914 — joined the Spokane celebration, but failed to get Congress to pass legislation creating a national holiday for dads.
There are several theories for why it took so long to adopt a national Father’s Day. Congress may have been concerned it would become too commercial. Others suggested fathers “did not have the same sentimental appeal as mothers,” and finally, some fathers apparently protested lavish gifts because they thought they would foot the bill.
Historian Timothy Marr suggested men “scoffed at the holiday’s sentimental attempts to domesticate manliness with flowers and gift-giving, or they derided the proliferation of such holidays as a commercial gimmick to sell more products — often paid for by the father himself.”
Despite the setbacks, Dodd continued advocating for the holiday, even while studying at the Chicago Art Institute, writing poetry, and publishing a children’s book. Her mother died when she was 16, leaving her father to raise six children as young as six years old. Dodd recalls her father as a “great home person,” a man who exemplified fatherly love and protection.
“I remember everything about him. He was both father and mother to me and my brothers and sisters,” she told a Spokane newspaper.
It was the second time Smart had been widowed. His first wife died in 1878, leaving Smart to raise their children alone. Two years later he married Ellen Victoria, a widow who brought three children to the marriage, and together they had six more children. In 1898, they sold their coal farm in Arkansas and moved to the Northwest.
Smart also served in the Civil War, for which he received a Union pension of $12 a month in 1907. Smart is thought to have enlisted in the Confederate Army from Arkansas early in the war. Captured in the Battle of Pea Ridge in 1862, Smart opted to join the northern cause rather than become a prisoner of war. (His daughter was a member of both the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Daughters of Union Veterans.) Smart served in the 1st Arkansas Volunteer Light Artillery and ended the war as a sergeant.
Sonora Smart Dodd was 90 years old when Father’s Day was made official by presidential proclamation in 1972. Her veteran father was long gone, but her love and appreciation for him never faltered. Her dedication to his memory helped create a day celebrating the exceptional importance of fathers – surely seen in the faces of those children who stood at the Monongah mine, waiting for fathers who never came home.
Christine Weerts, author of “Heroes of Faith: Rosa J. Young,” is a researcher with the Alabama Black Lutheran Heritage Association. She won a commendation from the Concordia Historical Institute in 2020 for her historical writing on race. A freelance writer, she has degrees in music (BA) and religion (MA).