How Chesterfield girl was instrumental in creation of Father's Day: 'Overwhelmed with the response'

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Posted at 6:53 PM, Jun 14, 2024

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- This Sunday, dads around the country will be celebrated as the United States marks Father's Day.

It was officially declared a permanent national day by President Richard Nixon in 1972, but efforts to get to that point stretched back to decades and Chesterfield County claims one of its citizens played a hand in that.

Liess Van Der Linden-Brusse, Library Committee Chair at the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia (CHSV), said they consider Father's Day to be among the "firsts" that county can claim.

"First iron works, first tar road, first dam in the James River. And we also have Father's Day," said Van Der Linden-Brusse. "We pride ourselves on having the reputation of being the founding county in this country for Father's Day."

Van Der Linden-Brusse said that is because of the work of Kathryn "Kate" Richardson Swineford, a 16-year-old from Drewry's Bluff who laid the legal groundwork for Father's Day.

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Kathryn "Kate" Richardson Swineford

"She did the paperwork. And it was based on that paperwork that the national holiday was declared," said Van Der Linden-Brusse.

Much of that paperwork is now in the hands of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, donated by Swineford in 1989. CBS6 was given access to the documents by curator Paige Newman.

The first documented case of a what could be considered the start of Father's Day was in 1908 in Monongah, West Virginia. A young girl named Grace Golden Clayton convinced her pastor to hold a service in honor of the hundreds of men, mostly fathers, who lost their lives in a mining disaster the previous year.

Then, on June 19, 1910, Spokane, Washington held a celebration at the local YMCA for Father's Day. The person behind that effort was Sonora Smart Dodd, who was inspired by a Mother's Day sermon the previous year and wanted to honor her father, a Civil War veteran who raised her and her five brothers by himself after their mother died in childbirth. Dodd is usually credited as the founder of Father's Day.

The efforts were supported by President Woodrow Wilson, who recognized Father's Day in 1916, and President Calvin Coolidge encouraged states to observe the holiday in 1924. Wilson encouraged a Father's Day celebration between troops overseas serving in WWI and their fathers. The day came after the war ended, but letters were still sent and delivered and some were published in newspapers.

However, it was not until 1966 when President Lyndon Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation declaring the third Sunday in June as Father's Day. Nixon made it permanent six years later.

Van Der Linden-Brusse said Swineford began her efforts in 1919 when she wrote a letter to The News Leader which it published on August 26, 1919 in which she proposed a Father's Day celebration on the first Sunday of June the next year.

"Since so many of our dear boys have made the supreme sacrifice for Old Glory, we know not of a more fitting way to show our appreciation of their I bravery than to establish a day sacred to the name of father; so don’t you, each and every citizen of the United States, think, taking it as a whole, our fathers are worthy of one Sunday just as much as our mothers? So, why not all work together, talk and think of this celebration and inaugurate one of the dearest days on earth “Fathers' Day” to be celebrated the first Sunday in June," Swineford wrote in the letter.

Swineford also encouraged people to wear a red flower for the day. She wrote that while a white flower was worn on Mother's Day as an emblem of their purity, the red flower for dad was "emblematic of bravery; for the fathers and brothers fight off the enemy, build the home, till the ground, pay the bills and in short give their lives for the service of the loved ones."

"She was absolutely overwhelmed with the response that came back," said Van Der Linden-Brusse.

Liess Van Der Linden-Brusse, Library Committee Chair, Chesterfield Historical Society
Liess Van Der Linden-Brusse

Newspapers articles from the next year promoted the second Sunday as Father's Day and encourage ministers to include it in their sermons. They mention Swineford as the driving force and president of the National Fathers' Day Club, which she planned to incorporate.

"They didn't have social media, they didn't have TV. They had nothing like that. But everybody -- Father's Day is on a Sunday. So, obviously they're going to go to church on Sunday. They put it right on the plate of the ministers," added Van Der Linden-Brusse.

Swineford even received a letter of interest and support for the idea later that year from Virginia Governor Westmoreland Davis, who also accepted membership in the "National Fathers' Day Society".

Letter from Gov. Westmoreland to Swineford in 1920
Letter from Gov. Westmoreland to Swineford in 1920. Courtesy of VHMC

In 1921, Van Der Linden-Brusse said Swineford received a charter for the "National Father's Day Association, Inc." from the State Corporation Commission.

Articles of Incorporation for National Fathers' Day Association, Inc.
1921 Articles of Incorporation for National Fathers' Day Association, Inc. Courtesy VMHC

In 1922, she received proclamation from Governor E. Lee Trinkle declaring the second Sunday in June as Father's Day.

1922 Fathers' Day Proclamation from Gov. Trinkle
1922 Fathers' Day Proclamation from Gov. Trinkle. Courtesy of VMHC

Van Der Linden-Brusse said kept the charter active for 11 years, paying a $5 annual fee. A 1924 News Leader article promoting a three-act comedy directed by Swineford to raise money for the costs.

She said Swineford dissolved the association in 1933 as she had filed a patent with the U.S. Patent Office in 1932. By this time, Swineford had married and taken the last name Burgess.

U.S. Patent Office Letter
U.S. Patent Office Letter to Burgess (née Swineford). Courtesy of VMHC

"And after a while, the whole idea of Father's Day became so well accepted by everybody that she didn't need to use the patent or she didn't need to have the club anymore."

A few things have changed since Swineford's initial efforts, including moving to the third Sunday, which Leiss says was to avoid a conflict with Children's Day and people do not tend to wear a red flower.

"The original plan was a red flower if to wear a red rose or red carnation," said Van Der Linden-Brusse.

Newspaper articles in the years and decades that followed made mention of Clayton, Dodd, and Swineford's efforts -- including when Swineford's father, Edward Swineford, died in 1961, listing him as the father who inspired Father's Day, and when Swineford died in 1993 at the age of 90 in Florida.

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So, this Father's Day put on a red flower in honor of your dad and in memory of the woman who Chesterfield claims as the first.

"For Mother's Day everybody honors the mother because she's the hand that rocks the cradle. But, as Kate Swineford very nicely said, she said 'But, it's the father who built the roof over the cradle," said Van Der Linden-Brusse. "Which I thought was a rather apt way of putting it."

While the VMHC has many documents from Swineford's efforts, one thing the CHSV said they are still looking for is a copy of a 1934 News Leader article in which she gave an interview about her efforts. If you have any leads on that please contact the VMHC or CHSV.

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