Growing up in the Wisconsin town where Flag Day began

June 14, 2021 7:00 am
Flag Day in Waubeka (photo by Emily Thome)

Flag Day in Waubeka (photo by Emily Thome)

I could drive the streets of my hometown with my eyes squeezed shut, a community so small it is often left off maps entirely. Growing up, I would take my evening runs from the side streets to the main street, trotting across the center lines without worry, chances that I’d be met with any sort of automobile laughably slim. 

However, one day a year in the middle of June, those ordinarily isolated asphalt roads are suddenly jammed with cars, marching bands, spirited floats, and sprightly spectators as the town celebrates its little-known role in a national holiday. 

Waubeka, Wis., is home to around 680 people, but that number skyrockets to 10,000 on June 14th when visitors flock to the tiny town to celebrate Flag Day at the holiday’s place of birth. According to the National Flag Day Foundation, Flag Day originated in 1885 when B.J. Cigrand, a local teacher, asked his students to write an essay about what the American flag means to them. 

From that day on,” the foundation’s  website explains, “Cigrand dedicated himself to inspiring not only his students but all Americans to reflect on the grand significance of “Old Glory.”’  

That same year, at least 28 Chinese miners were killed in Rock Springs, Wyoming by their white coworkers for allegedly stealing their jobs, and 79 of their homes were burned down. This history was quickly buried.  

Meanwhile, Flag Day and its patriotic message quickly spread, and Waubeka has hosted a Flag Day celebration every year since president Harry Truman designated it an official day of commemoration in 1946. 

In 2018, then-Gov. Scott Walker made an appearance at the Flag Day parade. “To have kids think about the importance of the flag and all that it stands for, now and as it was then, is important,” he said.  

Three months later, he tweeted at the NFL urging players for a second time not to kneel during the national anthem in protest of the systemic oppression of Black people and minorities. 

Flag Day parade in Waubeka (photo by Emily Thome)
Flag Day parade in Waubeka (photo by Emily Thome)

I carried a banner in the Flag Day parade every summer from about age 5 til I was 17, but the older I grew, the harder it was to convince me to walk the 30-minute route, even if it was a favor to my neighbor who was in charge of organizing all of the participants. That’s how Flag Day functioned—everyone did their part to make sure things ran smoothly and ensure our guests were impressed.

I remember one particularly hot summer when I reached the halfway point in the parade and my star-spangled flip-flop got stuck in the bubbling tar of the road, ripping right off my foot, top torn completely from bottom.

The schoolhouse where Flag Day got its start still stands at the northern entrance to Waubeka, a stilted gatekeeper. An abnormally large flag pole is situated in front of the building, and a brown sign identifies the quaint shack as the Birthplace of Flag Day. Another sign warns of a dangerous intersection and points down a winding hillside leading to the center of town.

The Milwaukee River flows lazily beside the road, next to a grassy field where the Potowatomi tribe, led by the town’s namesake Chief Waubeka, once resided. Now, a large cobalt sign stands in that place, once again informing visitors that they are in the birthplace of Flag Day. 

A Native American with a red, white, and blue headdress kneels above the text with a large American flag clasped in his fist. 

This patriotic color scheme is repeated throughout the rest of the subdued valley village, where bright new flags hang limply from old telephone poles. Colorful banners boasting Flag Day’s origin sway in a barely-there breeze, stationed above flowerpots that hold red, white and blue flowers. 

I can still picture my father driving a cherry-red Cadillac convertible as the 4-H Fairest of the Fair waved from the back seat. 

One summer I won a $500 savings bond in a contest for which students drew a picture of the aforementioned schoolhouse, the defining feature of my submission was a small sketch of myself reading a book on the school’s front lawn. 

There were also less innocent  moments during those small-town celebrations. The patriotic celebration of our country’s flag morphed into  drunken partying — surely frowned upon by the town’s veterans, the members of the National Flag Day Foundation, and anyone else who sees Flag Day as a reason for prideful remembrance instead of rowdy revelry. People like Jack Janik, the determined, long-time president of the Flag Day Foundation.

In 2017, I had the honor of receiving a personal tour of Waubeka’s Americanism Center, also known as the Flag Day Museum, from Mr. Janik, who has since passed away. 

As he walked me through the halls, Janik spoke of a Waubeka that was once a booming industrial town, overshadowing the likes of the currently much larger surrounding communities of Port Washington and Saukville. He waved past pictures of button factories and cheese makers, and proudly pointed out an old chair from one of the town’s first barbershops, stationed next to an aging painting of Chief Waubeka.

Posters lined the halls of the museum with photographs from the past 30 years of Flag Day celebrations glued to foam boards. Janik explained that the Flag Day Foundation honors a different group of patriotic people every year, like the Navy and the Air Force. 

My friends and I used to dare each other to go behind the museum where amateur graffiti covered the yellow brick, words like “die” and “lick me” hastily spray painted next to lewd cartoons. Cigarette butts dotted the grass.

“The flag is the symbol of our great country. That’s what it means to me,” Janik told me. “This is the greatest country in the world and that is the symbol of all of our people,” he said. 

I couldn’t stop thinking about the graffiti that said “lick me.” 

“The people who died to give us the ability to do what we want, but also everybody after that who went out on their own to not only build their own future but to build this country and insist that this country is going to be a free country and free for everybody,” he continued. 

I remembered the summer when I returned home after my freshman year of college and  a man I had known since I was a kid approached me before the parade began, looked at my haircut, and asked if I was a dyke. 

“Now, lately you’ll hear, and you always did, you can go back all the way to Lincoln’s time, the Civil War and all that stuff where there’s always conflict, there’s conflict right now as politicians try to settle things out,” Janik advised. “But this is America, the flag is the symbol of our great country, and it will come out on top.” 

Then there was the time  a drunk woman lay on her back on the street in front of my 12-year-old self as a bagpipe player in a kilt stood over her face.  

“It will come out on top,” Janik finished. “There’s absolutely no question about it.”

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Emily Thome
Emily Thome

Emily Thome is mostly a copywriter, sometimes a poet, and occasionally an essayist. Her work has been featured in Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Emily graduated from UW-Milwaukee in 2017 and now lives in Madison.