Early Decoration Days in Sterling featured the closing of businesses and a parade of all able-bodied community members. The procession moved from downtown Sterling, east on Washington to First Street, then north to the cemetery. Led by the old soldiers on horseback or in carriages, most families in the community joined in the parade. Women and children carried large bunches of wildflowers and garden flowers that were strewn on top of graves of old soldiers. The local Post of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) held a reception for local and visiting comrades in the early morning, followed by a drill and muster of the post. After the parade the contingency moved to quarters large enough to accommodate all and the local Post Commander would address the group. Solos and choruses would provide musical renditions of ‘Vacant Chair’ and ‘We Come, Silent Heroes’ and conclude with Preller’s National Hymn. A renowned orator, often from Topeka, was brought in to give the address of the day. Special recognition was given for old soldiers who had died since the previous Decoration Day and those who remained among the living were honored for their service. A remnant of these early Decoration Day parades is the First Street sidewalk that goes north from Washington Avenue to Cleveland Avenue to the cemetery. The 1911 sidewalk was laid out of consideration for the women in long dresses and men in dark suits parading through the dirt or mud to the cemetery.
The GAR, American patriotic organization composed of Union veterans of the American Civil War, was founded in Decatur, Illinois, on April 6, 1866. It was dissolved in 1956 following the death of its last member. This group was founded for remembering and honoring dead comrades. It also provided a brotherhood for mutual assistance to members and their families. This same GAR instituted the observance of Decoration Day that influenced all Americans not only to remember veterans but all those who have died. The organization was politically influential, particularly in its support of presidential candidates between 1872 and 1904 when its membership was at its peak. The GAR was very active in Sterling. Sadly for members and historians, the original records, all regalia, books, fixtures, charters, etc. were lost in the 1880 fire, which destroyed the eastside business from Monroe Street north. Some GAR bronze markers remain visible at Civil War soldiers' graves.