When you drive by the “Big Flag” in Centennial Park, think about this: it has cost more than $250,000 in cash and in-kind services to build, supply 50 new American flags, illuminate and maintain the flag system over the past 13 1/2 years.
It’s an awesome sight to behold when the wind moves the American flag, as big as a house, toward the track on Last Chance Gulch, 100 feet away. Twenty thousand people a day pass the giant symbolic landmark, with Carroll College and Mount Helena in the background.
For the newcomers or youngsters, it is not a veterans flag, like the ones across the street in Memorial Park. It is not a City of Helena flag, civic club flag, or a Realtors Association flag, like the one in Great Falls. It was built just after the 9/11 attack on America, as a patriotic gesture of hundreds of Helena citizens, contractors, businesses and labor unions.
There never has been one dime of taxpayer money spent on the flag, other than for snow removal, lawn irrigation and mowing. That was the promise flag promoters made when the City Commission first approved the use of the city-owned space for the Old Glory Landmark -- and that is the way it will always be!
It takes about $11,000 a year to keep the 30’ x 50’ flags flying 24/7, 365 days a year. Switching to LED lighting has cut costs for illumination by two thirds.
Replacing worn-out flags is a major expense. Four new flags were just ordered at a cost of $6,500 -- two winter-weight poly flags weighing 95 pounds each, and two summer-weight nylon flags, weighing 55 pounds each. Four quarterly flag sponsors pay for the flags and mending.
The Flag sponsors are Northwestern Energy, Valley Bank, Independent Record and Blue Cross/Blue Shield. There are also 12 monthly lighting sponsors, listed at the base of the monument.
Flags on the 110 foot high pole last for as long as two months, and, in one case, for as little as two days. When a flag is frayed or ripped by high wind, it is taken down and mended at Capitol Custom Upholstery a cost of $90. It is not easy to trim and mend a flag that big. Flags usually can be trimmed three times, down to 42 feet in length, then they are retired.
Boy Scout Troop 214 is the local Keepers of the Flag. For the past two years, Adam Mays, a strapping six-foot, 15 year-old scout and his father, Herschel Mays, have tended the flag on behalf of the Troop. In addition to lowering to half-staff when ordered by the Governor's Office, they are responsible for the replacement of torn flags to be mended, and general upkeep of the Old Glory monument.
The flag pole’s cable system was pretty primitive to begin with. A simple hand crank was used. A $6,500 power winch and pulley system was installed after a Boy Scout leader suffered a broken finger, and two major cable breaks occurred, requiring the use of a 130-foot crane. Fred Verzoni of Montana Flag and Pole donates his time to maintain the winch and cable systems. Engraved commemorative brick sales continue to be an important part of the Old Glory Landmark income. Sponsors have bought about 700 bricks at a cost of $250 each. The bricks bear the deeply etched lettering of passed loved ones, veterans, family members and businesses.
Last spring 40 commemorative bricks were ordered for placement by Memorial Day. Over the years, 600 bricks were set in place by Army Colonel (retired) Bill Beaman. It was a labor of love for him, until his death of cancer in 2012.
Colonel Beaman led 3,000 reservists to the first Desert Storm War. Later he served as Citizen Advisor for Montana to the Secretary of the Army (equal in rank to a three star general). In recognition of his service, Gov. Brian Schweitzer declared that all American flags in Montana be lowered to half-staff for Bill after his death. Rodger Foster has taken over Bill’s brick duties.
The Old Glory Landmark Committee has a dozen members. Ten are Helena Ambassador and two other flag sponsors. They are: Bob Henkel, manager, and Ron Mercer, secretary-treasurer. Members are Rodger Foster, Chuck Butler, Ed Jasmin, Howard Skjervem, Peter Sullivan, Dewey Bruce, Rick Hays, John Doran, Tyler Miller and Allison Atkinson.
For the second year, the Old Glory Landmark Committee coordinated a Capitol City Fourth of July Celebration in Centennial Park. Howard Skjervem and Tyler Miller were co-chairmen of the event which drew a crowd of 1,700 people. The event featured kids bounce houses, YMCA races, skateboard exhibition, free hot dogs, root beer floats, and bottled water.
There was a ceremonial changing of the colors to summer-weight flag, and a free 1 1/2 hour Rob Quist Band Concert. The event is now a Helena Community July 4th tradition. Chuck Butler and I were interviewed by KTVH-TV at the flag site just before the July 4 event. Concluding the interview, the newsman asked each one of us, “When you drive by the Big Flag what do you see?”
Chuck replied, "I see the flag as a symbol of freedom.”
I answered, “I look at the top outside end of the flag to see if it is becoming frayed or ripped and in need of replacement.” You can guess which reply ended the newscast. I will have to admit, as a WW11 US Marine veteran, when I drive by, I always give the Big Flag a snappy salute. Thanks to everyone who lent a hand this past year for the Helena Community Old Glory, and making the Capitol City Fourth of July Celebration such a big success. Be sure to see the dazzling, decorative seasonal lighting display at the Old Glory Landmark -- courtesy of our good friends at Nitro-Green.
Bob Henkel is Founder and 14 year manager of the Old Glory Landmark.