By Deb Everts

A 13-star American Flag has been restored and is back in the possession of the Ellicottville Historical Society. Its origin is a mystery, but experts say it’s a Civil War recruitment flag, dated 1861 to 1865.

Carolyn Litchfield-Bauer, secretary for the historical society, said the flag’s return to the society began in October 2018 when she and her husband, David, were having dinner with friends, Mike Weishan, and his wife, Eileen. Weishan, who is treasurer for the Ellicottville American Legion, asked Bauer if the historical society would like their flag back.

Bauer said she had no idea what flag Weishan was referring to, so he told her about an old flag that had been hanging in the legion for years. He said it was not in the greatest shape and it belonged to the historical society. Intrigued by this flag, Bauer took the information to the board and they were intrigued as well. 

“Nobody knew of such a flag. Some members recalled being in the legion numerous times, but none recalled this flag,” she said. “When I was a kid, we’d go to the legion for fish fries and we’d sit in the same room with the flag without noticing it. I guess it’s one of those things. it’s been there your whole life, but you have never looked at it.”

Bauer said the board went to the legion to check out this flag, which was in a large, handmade wooden frame under thick glass. She said it had hung there for a long time and it was clear by the sad condition of the flag. 

“The glass was yellowed with age, cigarette smoke and grease,” she said. “A lot of that funk had transferred to the flag under the glass. To make matters worse, the flag was held down with staples and thumbtacks. Over the years the flag had begun to pull away from these bindings and tear.”

Next to the flag was a framed newspaper clipping with a photograph of Ellicottville area resident Earl Lounsbury who donated the 13-star flag to the historical society in the early 1960s. The flag, 8 feet, 8 inches long and 39 inches wide, was on display for a week in the society’s museum in the court house. 

According to Bauer, the article claimed that the flag was one of the original 13-star flags, pre-dating 1800. She said the board members were very excited about this but, unfortunately, it was not true according to flag expert Jeff Bridgman.

“Earl Lounsbury gave the flag to the historical society, but we don’t know how the legion ended up with it for nearly 60 years. We don’t have any records about the flag and we are not sure how that went down,” she said. “Since the historical society has virtually no storage space in their tiny museum, I’m guessing they didn’t have a place to put it — not even enough wall space to hang it. They probably thought the legion was a good place for it because it’s a military recruitment flag and the legion is all about the military. It seems logical.” 

THE BOARD decided to take the flag back and keep it safe until they could determine what to do with it. Dawn Westfall, president of the historical society, suggested they look into preservation and restoration. Bauer agreed to do the research and, for a year and a half, the flag has been her pet project. 

Through her research, Bauer discovered the Textile Conservation Workshop (TCW) that agreed to examine the flag and write up a treatment plan for $300. The staff at TCW said they could remove the flag from the frame at a cost of $85 an hour, or the society could remove it. The society decided to remove it.

Bauer and her husband took on the daunting task of removing the old flag from its frame. She said they painstakingly removed hundreds of staples that covered almost every inch of the perimeter. They discovered that the flag was actually folded over twice in the frame, so it was much larger than they expected.

The flag was packaged and sent to TCW. After completing their examination, the organization sent a thorough report detailing every inch of the flag and every procedure they used. Bauer said the report included some interesting, but also disappointing information.

“The flag has a long and narrow configuration, which is unusual. The canton extends into the fourth white strip, which is also fairly unusual,” she said. “They thought the flag might possibly be a naval flag but, with the irregularities, they suggested a flag expert be contacted.”

Bauer contacted flag expert Jeff Bridgman who examined the photographs and report on the flag. He is confident that it’s a Civil War Flag. She said this was disappointing because the newspaper article found with the flag stated that it predates 1800 when, in fact, it does not.  

“TCW’s findings were that it’s a Civil War recruitment flag that was used by the military at recruitment locations as they were working to recruit soldiers for the Civil War,” she said. “That would date the flag from 1861 to 1865. The article was about 70 years off.”

According to Bauer, the historical society paid just under $500 for the examination and treatment plan, plus the cost of the frame to hang the flag and the shipping. She said TCW told her about the Greater Hudson Heritage Network, an organization that might give them a grant for up to $7,000 to have the flag restored. The society applied and received a grant for $5,185 that covered the full amount of restoration.

The restored flag finally returned home to the historical society in early February, just in time for the town’s bicentennial this year. Westfall said because of the flag’s size, it can only be displayed vertically and the only place to do that is the town hall.

She said the flag is planned to be on display during the bicentennial celebration, but only temporarily. Then the flag will be safely stored to preserve and protect it.

Westfall said the historical society wishes to publicly acknowledge the Greater Hudson Heritage Network. They made it possible for the society to have the flag cleaned and restored, as well as have the proper storage material to preserve it.