Downtown Omaha, October 1925, the world’s largest flag covered the Douglas Street side of the Brandeis Building.
The U.S. flag was 90 feet tall and 165 feet wide, stretching from a few feet off the sidewalk up to the building’s ninth floor. It was at the time believed to be the biggest banner ever made, according to World-Herald archives.
Each of the 48 stars was 4 feet wide, the stripes 7 feet tall. Made of heavy material, the flag weighed 700 pounds and had to be held up with a series of ropes at 20-foot intervals.
The flag stayed on the building for days, coming down for repairs after it was torn and soaked by the wind and rain of an ill-timed storm.
It was, to the best of our knowledge, the single biggest act of patriotism (in square footage, at least) in the city’s history. An unforgettable sight. And nobody — nobody — knows what happened to it next.
Its origins, at least, are clear. The flag was made for the American Legion’s seventh national convention, which Omaha was hosting that year.
The convention, which ran the first week of October, spanned 104 blocks of Omaha. If all the decorations were laid end-to-end in a straight line, they would have stretched 8 miles, said H.W. Lewis, the convention’s official decorator, in 1925. Lewis told The World-Herald that “the decorations for Omaha’s convention would be the most elaborate of any national Legion convention.”
To live up to such a claim, nothing less than the world’s largest flag would do.
Old Glory was J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store’s contribution to the festivities. Brandeis designed the flag. Scott-Omaha Tent and Awning company made it.
Strangely, the final mention of the flag in World-Herald archives came on Oct. 5, 1925, in a news item regarding the storm damage it had suffered. After that, there was no word of whether the flag went back up on the building after repairs. No mention of it being saved or disposed of. No who or how or where.
Which raises the question: What does one do with a 700-pound, 15,000-square-foot flag once one is finished with it?
Surely the historical records at the Omaha Public Library would offer some answers.
They did not.
Martha Grenzeback, a librarian, and Mark Sorensen, a specialist, couldn’t find information relevant to our search. Though not for lack of trying.
In helping us, they searched the library’s archives and those of the Nebraska State Historical Society. And ArchiveGrid. And WorldCat. Grenzeback also checked in with Gary Kastrick, curator of the South Omaha Museum. He has a large collection of Brandeis holiday display items, she said, but he had no knowledge of the flag.
Perhaps the company that made the flag knew something?
Well, there was a problem there. Scott-Omaha Tent and Awning is long gone. It changed ownership and name in 1964 to Scott Manufacturing, a company that has since closed and the former president of which could not be reached.
The family of Allen C. Scott — the president of the earlier company before his death in 1964 — kept no records, said his daughter, Flo Scott Wells, who still lives in Omaha.
Maybe the family that owned Brandeis before it was sold to Younkers knew what happened to the flag.
Alan Baer was the last president of Brandeis before selling the business in 1987. He died in 2002, and his wife, Marcia Baer, died in 2010. The Baers’ son and daughter-in-law, Ted and Kathy Baer, now run a foundation in their name.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have any (store) records,” Kathy Baer said. “Back in the day, everything was given either to the Durham Museum or the Jewish Historical Society.”
Maybe one of those museums had something — some unassuming document or a quickly scrawled note on the back of a photo that would indicate the flag’s fate.
Nebraska Jewish Historical Society: No, sorry.
Durham Museum: Sorry.
The Durham actually had enough in its Brandeis collection to host an exhibit a few years back: “A Shopper’s Paradise: The Brandeis Department Store.”
The collection shows what shopping was like in the early and mid-1900s in downtown Omaha. But it revealed no knowledge of the flag’s whereabouts, said Emma Sundberg, Durham’s curator of collections.
Another dead end.
We sought the advice of Kristine Gerber, executive director of Restoration Exchange Omaha.
“Here are my educated guesses of what happened to the flag,” Gerber wrote in an email. Her first idea: “Omaha has always been a big Boy Scout town. I would say the Boy Scouts were called in to properly burn the flag after the event. Imagine that bonfire.”
And so our search moved on to the Boy Scouts.
Omaha’s Troop 42, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, possibly would have been the organization to burn the big flag.
But Larry McNichols, who’s been active in Troop 42 for more than 60 years, said he has never heard any such story. And Tom Henriksen, retired Troop 42 committee chairman, said he’s not aware of the troop retiring the flag, and he said no information about the flag could be found in the troop archives.
Gerber offered another possibility: “The fabric was cut into scraps by the Red Cross” to make bandages.
The first Nebraska Red Cross chapter came to Omaha in 1917, and the organization is now looking into its own history for its centennial celebration.
“We’ve uncovered several interesting Red Cross historical tidbits,” said Richard W. Dinsdale, communications manager for the Red Cross’ regional division. “But this is a new one.”
His office couldn’t turn up anything about the missing flag, but “it would make sense that the Red Cross could have been involved,” Dinsdale said. The main reason the Red Cross was founded in Omaha was to help make bandages for the war effort.
So, by this point, we’d resigned ourselves to hypotheticals: Say you had a 700-pound flag to dispose of. How specifically might you retire such a thing?
Title 4 of the U.S. Code says that “the flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”
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Fire is the preferred method, but not the only one.
“Cloth flags get burned in a fire, and synthetic material flags get cut into smaller pieces and buried,” said Henriksen of Troop 42. “There are many different ceremonies and procedures if you do a Google search, but burning and burying are the short version.”
Michael Buss, the staff member for flag education and etiquette at the American Legion’s national headquarters, said burning is of course “a formidable task with larger flags, but we have no doubt some creative Legionnaire will come up with a way.”
Would Buss want to speculate wildly about what happened to the flag? Offer a guess, even?
No, he said. No, he would not.
The flag’s whereabouts remains unknown. It might have been buried or burned. Or it might be sitting in a random barn or shed, in tatters, awaiting discovery. Waiting, specifically, for the people in possession of said flag to call or email a reporter and let him know what they know. Call him or email him.