COLUMBIA — When Labor Day was proposed as a holiday toward the end of the 19th century — amid union strikes and economic turmoil — advocates for American workers held a parade to show “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations,” according to the United States Department of Labor website.
There were no bands or floats in the streets of Columbia on Monday, no pageant queens smiling and waving graciously from the backs of convertibles. But at Twin Lakes Recreation Area, there was a steady stream of furry playfellows with wagging tails filing in and out of the dog park.
“It’s a beautiful day,” said Carolyn Sullivan, owner of Cleo, a 3-month-old German shepherd mix. “I had to take her out.”
Sullivan was one of hundreds of Columbia residents for whom the holiday and the cool, sunny weather offered a chance to get out and enjoy the parks.
For those who spoke with the Missourian, Labor Day was less about the tumultuous times that led to its creation nearly 130 years ago and more about relaxing and spending time with friends and family.
At Twin Lakes, Jennifer King and her son wasted no time unpacking their newly purchased fishing pole.
"I wanted to get him out of the house and away from the video games," King said as she strung the fishing pole. "Just want to get out here, have some family time and enjoy the weather."
At nearby picnic tables covered with watermelon rinds and the remnants of a barbecue, Bill Morrissey savored an afternoon lunch with his son and their dog.
"It was (my son's) birthday this weekend, so I asked him what he wanted to do, and he said the park," Morrissey said. "We're from the Rocheport area, so we don't get to make it over here very often."
On the north side of town, Columbia Cosmopolitan Park's skate park buzzed with skateboarders and bike riders doing tricks and hanging out. Teresa Gilbert of Moberly watched her two grandsons, Brent Hall, 11, and Dayde Mattox, 12, skateboard with friends during their first visit to the park.
Meanwhile, Stephens Lake Park was packed with people doing everything from swimming in the lake to lounging in the shade of a tree. Members of the Mid-Missouri Singles Christian Adventurer Group joked with each other around a picnic table covered with food. Group member Sam Ross tried to give away some cupcakes by calling to people walking by on the path.
Tessa Radmer was at Stephens Lake to celebrate the birthday of her son, Ashton, who turned 4 on Monday. Radmer and her family came to the park to hang out and ride bikes. Ashton's grandmother, Twila Stokes, said Labor Day means time with family.
Meanwhile, Tammy and Garrett Falls cast fishing lines from the side of the lake. They started fishing at 6 a.m. at A. Perry Philips Park then went to Stephens Lake. Both have been fishing since they were kids.
Garrett Falls had caught one fish earlier in the day, but Tammy Falls was having no luck. "I'm getting ready to jump in there," she said after a fish she hooked got away.
Asked what Labor Day meant to them, the two had different answers.
"It's a time to relax and spend time with the family," Tammy Falls said. "It's an extra day you don't get very often."
"It's a day I don't gotta work," Garrett Falls said.
Early Monday afternoon, Neeley Current took her two young sons to Douglass Park for some fun time before barbecuing. Labor Day, she said, "means time not at work, a day to spend with family and friends and to commemorate the work force." .
Current said we sometimes lose sight of what holidays actually mean because we have so few of them. Each one offers a much-needed break, she said.
At Cosmo-Bethel Park, Katrina Dixon and her daughter, Antonia, watched ducks swim in the lake.
“It’s nice to sit and not be sweating,” Katrina Dixon said.
Others were more active. “Our plans are to bike all day,” Mike Plumb said. “It’s too nice of a day to spend indoors.”
With a day off school, 15-year-old Keeley Houghton got together with 12 friends for a “sports day.”
“To me, Labor Day is being together with your closest friends,” Houghton said.
At the end of the day, many of the friends planned for time with their families. Raven Virk was going to see “The Help” with her grandparents. And Rachel Doisy was looking forward to playing board games and helping her dad grill steaks.
On Monday morning, while 230 people ran through Columbia in the Heart of America Marathon, dozens of their friends, family and neighbors waited downtown to see their favorite runner reach the end.
Several talked about what Labor Day 2011 meant to them. Again, friends and family were common themes.
Joyce Schulte stood like a traffic cop at Broadway and Eighth Street, waving each runner through the final few hundred feet of the race.
On Labor Day, “my first thought is Heart of America Marathon, if I’m in Columbia,” said Schulte, who has helped at the marathon for “52 years, on and off.”
“Where else do you see this kind of energy?” Schulte asked. “Where else do you find people just clapping for people just because they’re running?”
Ruth Mullen, 31, said the race has become a Labor Day tradition for her, too. “My husband runs in the marathon, and then we go to my parents’ house for a barbecue,” Mullen said.
Elzan McMurry, 73, of Howard County was waiting near the inflatable blue arch at the end of the race for her son-in-law, Dana Kee, to finish his first marathon.
“We always have family reunions on Labor Day," she said. "We had it yesterday.”
Jessie Bradley, 50, was waiting outside Boone County National Bank for a neighbor's son to cross the finish line. Her 14-month-old daughter, Joi, sat on her lap.
“I think of taking a break from labor, enjoying family and friends, the last of summer,” Bradley said.
Cody Burnett, 25, wasn't as lucky. Late Monday morning, he was sitting on a short brick wall smoking a cigarette across Cherry Street from Addison’s restaurant, where he is assistant kitchen manager.
“I gotta go to work,” he said.
Missourian reporters Lauren Quick, Raymond Howze, Aaron Cooper, Hannah Burkett, Anna Carlson and Christina Trester contributed to this story.