July 2008 Issue
Broad Stripes, Bright Stars
Workers at flag manufacturer Annin and Co. get a patriotic boost every day.
What did Francis Hopkinson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and designer of the Stars and Stripes, imagine defiance and its fluttering symbol would come to after more than 230 years? (His work on the flag, Hopkinson told Congress, merited nothing more than a “Quarter Cask of the public Wine” in payment. Congress, which in those days apparently counted its pennies and held tight its casks, paid him nothing.)
In Coshocton, where famed flag maker Annin and Co. has one of its three plants — all three being in the United States — seamstresses like 24-year veteran Susan L. McCombs know what Hopkinson could not about the evolutionary meaning of “Made in the U.S.A.”
McCombs grew up in a nation Hopkinson experienced only in its nascent form. She has crossed into a century that in many ways he could not have comprehended. All the same, to say she appreciates what Hopkinson, and others like him, bequeathed her probably is not saying enough.
“This is where my heart is. It’s pretty cool to be making American flags. It’s a little more patriotic than a lot of other jobs,” she says as she stands near her workstation. The area, one of many at the 150,000-square-foot facility, is filled with tables, scissors, sewing machines, star-studded fields of blue cloth and yards upon yards of red and white material cut to the width of the stripes needed to assemble 3-by-5-foot flags.
It is the end of a shift and another productive day. During one shift alone, a team of five fabricators will produce 485 copies (or about one each working minute) of the glorious Red, White and Blue.
A worker who seldom misses a day, McCombs can’t guess how many of the flags on which she has sewn seams have fluttered over the likes of warships, air bases, battalion headquarters, marine landing sites, government and business buildings, cemeteries and from white posts on front porches across America.
“Oh, my gosh,” she says, “I could never count. Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands?”
McCombs turns toward a supervisor for a guess.
“A million,” responds Jackie Hultz with a laugh.
As is true of scores of others working at the flag factory, McCombs doesn’t think that having handled more flags than almost anyone in Coshocton leads her to revere a single, soaring public banner less than do her most patriotic neighbors. Old Glory isn’t something to be taken for granted.
“When I talk to strangers, I’m proud to say I make our flag,” she says.
Flag making runs in the family. Son David West has worked at Annin for about 14 years. A sister, Diane Burchfield, has spent 22 years in the business. Another sister, Cookie Burchfield, is a relative novice, having put in only “about five or six years” at the facility, McCombs says.
Annin and Co. dates to 1847, the year Iowa became the 29th star. Annin flags were carried to the North Pole by Robert E. Peary in 1909, to the South Pole by Richard E. Byrd in 1930, to the top of Mount Everest by aNational Geographic team in 1963 and to the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts in 1969. It was an Annin flag that famously was raised at Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima in 1945 and an Annin flag that draped Abraham Lincoln’s casket as it traveled the slow, sad rail journey from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, in 1865.
None of those flags was made in
Coshocton, because Annin didn’t move into Ohio until after those landmark events took place. However, thousands of hand-sized, Coshocton-made flags waved at Ground Zero when President Bush spoke to anxious but defiant New Yorkers and to a sympathetic world during the grim aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Hultz remembers well the semi-trailer arriving to pick up the flags bound for New York and the days that followed during which fabricators ran out of material because the rush to buy flags for display turned explosive.
“Everything red, white and blue was flying out the door,” she says.
Aside from monumental happenings like war that inspire waves of fervent patriotism and a consequent run on flags, the business normally moves in an annual cycle. At the Coshocton factory, which specializes in the making of mass-merchandise flags, November through May typically are the months when sewing, packing and shipping reach a peak. The flags made during winter and spring are dispensed to
retailers, including Wal-Mart, Kmart and TrueValue stores, in time for the summer holidays.
The facility can roll out hundreds of thousands of flags each week, ranging in size from small stick emblems waved at parades to full-blown, flagpole-topping, fluttering models that evoke emotion and command attention. Both responses are not unknown to U.S. Army veteran William Addy, who is happy to have joined the Annin outfit in November 2007 after turns as a truck driver, oil-field worker, water driller and factory hire.
“I joined the military to protect my flag,” he says, “and I feel protective of it here.”
Packaging supervisor Cheryl Bartholow, who has spent 22 years with Annin in Coshocton, says patriotism seems natural in a place where the nation’s colors are the focus of each day’s work during a career that can last years.
“If you’re not patriotic before you get here,” she says, “you will be when you leave.”
Most flag-makers, like most citizens, arrive at Annin already inclined to give something of their life for the flag. The longer they stay, though, the less they want to surrender what must feel like a hallowed calling.
McCombs, at 64, isn’t going anywhere. At least she has no such plan. The flag is history — hers, her family’s, her country’s. She doesn’t have it in her heart to shirk a duty.
“I intend to do this as long as the good Lord gives me the health to continue,” she says, “because I love what I do.”