Lehigh Valley

You're a grand old flag

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On June 14, 2012, Allentown will celebrate Flag Day, as it has for many years. There will be a ceremony at West Park, complete with plenty of Sousa music and tributes to the national banner that the Allentown Flag Day Association has honored since 1907. Born at a time of optimistic patriotism when the United States was first recognized as a world power, Flag Day remains a symbol that holds together a much changed nation, uniting Americans of all races and creeds.

Exactly how Flag Day came about is somewhat open to debate. The first national anniversary celebration of a day devoted to the flag came in 1877. The nation was then caught up in the 100th anniversary of American Independence, and the holiday to celebrate the national banner made sense on the anniversary of Congress passing a resolution in 1777 that created a flag for the United States.

Francis Scott Key put the flag on the map as a national icon when he wrote the "Star Spangled Banner" after watching the bombardment of Ft. McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. Added to this was the flag coming into its own as symbol of a re-united nation following the Civil War.

How often Flag Day was celebrated in the 19th century after 1877 is open to question. Some places celebrated it more than others and some not at all. What is clear from the record is that although Allentown may not have been the first place to celebrate Flag Day, it and the Flag Day Association were certainly a major part of getting it adopted as a national celebration by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and eventually into a national holiday when President Harry Truman signed the National Flag Day Bill in 1949.

Perhaps the single most important individual in Allentown in getting the Flag Day Association organized and boosting the holiday into a national event was a Joseph "Joe" Hart. Largely forgotten today, he was a local presence in early 20th century Allentown that could not be ignored.

Hart, a native of Lansing, Michigan, was born in 1850. In the post Civil War era he went West to the last remaining American frontier. Here as an impressionable teenager, he not only helped out his father- who sold shirts to the soldiers in the frontier forts- but also developed a larger sense of America's national destiny.

Hart was both a natural salesman and a promoter, a talent that he developed into a career as a stage and theater manager. During that time he travelled the world and became friendly with William Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, and Sir Thomas Lipton, the tea planter and yachtsman.

Hart first came to Allentown in 1890, promoting a theatrical production of a then-popular play, "The Second Mrs. Winthrop." By 1895 he had decided to stop his wandering life and settle down in Allentown.

He took a job as salesman with Aschbach's Music House, moving into a modest home on N. Jefferson Street. He liked the city and the city liked him. Hart quickly became a leading figure in just about every fraternal organization in Allentown from the Elks to the Order of Red Men. By the early 20th century, Hart was widely known as one of the most influential Elks in the state.

It was in 1905 that Hart came up with the idea of an Allentown Flag Day event. On June 14th of that year a small ceremony was held in the Lehigh County Courthouse to celebrate Flag Day. Working with him was a number of Civil War veterans. Chief among them was Commander Abandon S. Moyer, a veteran of the War Between the States and head of the Yeager Post 13 of the Grand Army of the Republic, a national veterans association. In the crowd was then-Colonel and later General Harry C. Trexler, a major industrialist who owned the Trexler Lumber Company and the Lehigh Valley Transit Company, the region's major streetcar line.

The primary speaker was attorney Fred Gernard, who represented Lehigh County in Congress in the early 1920s. Gernard's topic was the suffering of local men during the American Revolution at the Battle on Long Island, an American defeat in 1777.

"How our hearts are thrilled when we recall the heroic stand that our forefathers made, the majority of which regiment came from among these hills and valleys, speaking the same tongue that so clearly distinguishes us," he said, referring to the Pennsylvania German dialect. The speech was followed by a conclusion and the singing of "My Country Tis of Thee"

Two years later, with Trexler's support, Hart created the Allentown Flag Day Association. Shortly thereafter, while attending the Elks national convention in Atlantic City, Hart pushed through a resolution that made it obligatory for all Elks Lodges in the U.S. and its possessions to annually observe Flag Day. Because it was a national organization with many members, Hart's action with the Elks elevated Flag Day to a new level of national consciousness, making it much easier for Woodrow Wilson to name it a national celebration.

Hart was not finished yet. In 1922 he held the biggest Flag Day celebration Allentown had ever seen, featuring the Association's most famous member, General John J. Pershing, the overall commander of American forces in Europe during World War I. Prompted by Hart to join the Association, Pershing, then a young obscure officer, had promised to visit Allentown. Now he was an international celebrity. The response in the city was so overwhelming that Pershing was heard to tell an aide "We've gone through a lot of demonstrations, lieutenant, but this beats them all."

Hart died in 1932. Shortly before his death came perhaps Hart's biggest satisfaction, the recognition by President Herbert Hoover in 1931 of the Star Spangled Banner as the national anthem, an act which he had long urged. So wave that flag.

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