Life in our Foothills July 2023 – Discover Our Country’s Story at the House of Flags Museum
Published 1:32 pm Wednesday, July 26, 2023
Flags can symbolize so much, including everything from countries to causes. They can also tell stories, and the story of our country is told through the flags on display at the House of Flags Museum in downtown Columbus.
“We think of a flag as representing a sovereign nation, a sovereign state, a governmental unit or a military and so on, but it’s the people who are behind that flag, who support that flag, sponsor that flag that make it all worthwhile because without the people, the flag is nothing,” says Robert Williamson, who is the curator of the museum. “We know of no other museum that’s like this.”
The late George Scoville, a local resident, founded the museum in September 2001. Williamson says Scoville noticed people ignoring the flag and color guard and he wanted to create a place to teach flag history and respect. Scoville opened the museum in the VFW building 13 miles outside of town. It had no heat, air conditioning or restrooms.
Scoville passed away in November 2008 but Polk County Commissioners kept his dream alive and donated a downtown building to the museum in 2011.
It’s now a living reminder of Scoville’s tireless passion for educating younger generations about the history of our nation’s flags and the stories they tell about our country’s struggles for liberty and freedom.
“We teach the history of the United States,” says Williamson. “We teach flag respect. We teach how to use the flag properly and what the flag means, so it’s an educational museum.”
The museum displays a comprehensive historical collection of over 300 United States, military, state and international flags, including all 27 full-size official US. flags from 1776 to 1960. The impressive exhibits include the hornet’s nest flag, which was the first unofficial flag of North Carolina. It symbolizes how a local militia defeated British General Charles Cornwallis and his troops at Charlotte in 1780.
“Cornwallis wrote back to England and said ‘I tried to retain Mecklenburg County and Charlotte Town but it’s a hornet’s nest of rebellion,’ hence Charlotte is known as the hornet’s nest city, as in the Charlotte Hornets basketball team,” says Williamson.
One of the newest additions to the museum is the Presidential Flag Exhibit. Williamson says it’s the only exhibit like it in the United States. It shows the evolution of the presidential flag from George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower when our nation reached 50 states. There’s also an exhibit of flags remembering the September 11 terrorist attacks, including one called the Flag of Honor.
“Nearly all 3,000 people who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks in New York, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania are named on this flag,” says Williamson.
The US flags are all painstakingly accurate reproductions, some custom-made, some donated and some purchased. The president’s flags are all hand-embroidered, a process Williamson says takes about 900 hours. He says originals can be nearly impossible to find and are too expensive to preserve and protect, especially for an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization.
“If we had authentic flags we’d have hundreds of millions of dollars worth of artifacts here and frankly we don’t have the deep pockets to secure that and preserve that,” says Williamson.
Still, the authentic reproductions draw groups from schools, churches, and civic organizations as well as history buffs from all over the world.
“We’ve had some people come through say ‘I’ve got a half hour to look at the flags,’” says Williamson. “When they start hearing the first story of the flags they’re here for another two hours because every flag has a story.”
That’s what happened to Tom Weaver and his wife Sara when they moved to Columbus from Illinois in 2020 and first visited the museum.
“We went inside and we wanted to stay like for 10 minutes and we stayed for two hours,” says Weaver. “I encourage everybody to visit the flag museum, not just once, but multiple times to really absorb the true value of what the museum can deliver.”
“Once you come here and you start getting the education of how the flags were designed, how they were made, why they were made then you see a whole different aspect of what the House of Flags Museum is actually about,” says Columbus mayor Patrick McCool, who adds that the museum is a great asset to draw tourists to the town.
Williamson says the most important thing for all visitors to understand is that what they are seeing is far more than just flags.
“The flag represents our nation,” says Williamson. “It’s not just a piece of cloth, and when it represents our nation it represents the history of our nation. Everything our nation went through to get to this point is represented and can be told by that flag.”
The House of Flags Museum is located at 33 Gibson St. in Columbus. It’s open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tours can be arranged at other times by appointment. Admission is free. To learn more visit houseofflags.org