“If you look at that grand flag stretched behind us, you can see what we think of ourselves, our country, and our future. That flag was made by and for men and women who still know how to dream great dreams and who still believe they can make their dreams come true.”
- President Ronald Reagan
A MAN AND A DREAM
The story of the Great American Flag started like all great stories do, in the mind of its creator. In the case of the Great American Flag, this man was Len Silverfine, a marketing professor at the University of Vermont. In 1976, Len was struck with idea of creating the world’s largest American Flag to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial. But an idea is not enough. Over the next few years, Len would have to rely on the patriotism and support of countless individuals, companies and organizations that donated their time, resources, and talents to make the Great American Flag a reality.
A MAJOR ANNIVERSARY AND A MAJOR SETBACK
In 1976, Len set out to create the world’s largest American Flag in less than six months. The job of assembling the 71,000 sq. ft. flag fell to the Hood Sails Company of Marblehead, Massachusetts. The flag was completed in June of 1976 and, with the approval of the Bicentennial Commission and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, it was shipped to New York City to be hung from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge for the Fourth of July celebrations. With the help of 40 ironworkers, the flag was hoisted in place to honor the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
What started out as the perfect backdrop for the many New York dignitaries that sought the patriotic photo-op quickly turned into a disaster scenario for Len and the flag. As warm air moved in and winds increased, the flag received irreparable damage from the tremendous forces that were applied to the seams.
A NEW DREAM AND A NEW FLAG
Despite the major setback at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Len would not be deterred and went back to the drawing board with a bigger dream to create a bigger flag. Len not only wanted to create a flag that was bigger, but that was stronger and could be unfurled for flag holidays on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. In order to do so, he enlisted the expertise and resources of more than half dozen companies and organizations specializing in everything that would be needed to create would become the largest single piece of textile ever produced.
Every aspect of the new flag’s design was to be considered. The material selected for the flag itself was a very strong industrial polyester fabric, the same fabric used in lawn mower bags, that would not only stretch in high winds, but allow for air to flow through it. Special dyes were used to ensure the colors met U.S. Military specifications and could withstand the harsh elements encountered in the New York Harbor.
Finally the task of assembling the giant flag went to Anchor Industries of Evansville, Indiana. When it was complete, the Great American Flag would measure 410 ft x 211 feet with 16 foot tall stripes and stars measuring 13 feet across. Due to the materials required to make the flag as strong as it is large, the Great American Flag would weigh over seven tons!
IRAN HOSTAGE CRISIS
Working in shifts, the employees of Anchor Industries were assigned the task of assembling a flag that would weigh 7 tons and cover an cover an area of 2 acres. While the flag was being assembled, Len set out to raise the money necessary to install the rigging needed to hoist the massive flag. Despite media attention and public support, the fundraising effort stalled and the future of the flag was unclear.
On March 22, 1980 a crowd of more than 10,000 gathered at the Evansville Airport to witness the first unfurling of the Great American Flag. Understanding that a great flag needed great purpose, the flag was dedicated to the 52 Americans that were being held hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Ten months later the Great American Flag would play another important role in the Iran Hostage Crisis. After the hostages were released following the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, the flag was unfurled alongside the runway at Andrew’s Airforce Base to welcome the hostages home after 444 days of captivity.
ON THE WHITE HOUSE LAWN
Despite his tireless efforts over the course of six years, it became increasingly obvious that Len was not going to be able to raise the needed funds to give the flag a permanent home on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. But what do you do with a 7 tone, 2 acre flag? You give it to the federal government of course.
So Len set out to make arrangements to donate the flag to the federal government with the stipulation that the flag be unfurled every Flag Day at the Washington Monument. For almost a year Len contacted and re-contacted White House officials regarding his offer to donate the world’s largest American flag to the country it honored. Finally, on June 4th, 1983 Len was contacted by the White House and informed that President Ronald Reagan wanted to accept the flag as a gift and would do so on Flag Day. This gave Len just 10 days to make arrangements to transport the flag to Washington, DC and unfurl it on the White House Ellipse where the official ceremony would take place.
On June 14th, 1983 with Vice President George H. W. Bush in attendance, President Reagan accepted the Great American Flag as a gift to the nation and offered assurances that the flag would be unfurled every Flag Day at the base of the Washington Monument. Despite the President’s pledge, the Great American Flag would succumb to the bureaucracy known as the General Services Administration and the future of the Great American Flag was in doubt once again.
TED'S PATRIOTIC IMPULSE BUY
After years bouncing between museums and government warehouses, the Great American Flag was sent to auction on July 4th, 2001. Ted Dorfman was relaxing at home watching the History Channel when he stumbled across the live auction. Without deliberation, but with a strong sense of patriotism, the US Army veteran placed the winning bid. He spent the next several weeks contemplating what to do with such a unique piece of Americana, but Ted's next move became clear within just a few weeks.
Shortly after the flag arrived to Ted Dorfman’s home in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, United Flight 93 crashed 40 miles away in Shanksville on September 11th, 2001. Within days, Ted was joined by crane operators, helicopter pilots, and an army of volunteers to display the Great American Flag at a memorial service for the victims. Thousands of people attended the service on September 23rd in nearby Jennerstown as the nation mourned its losses.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
As time progressed, the Great American Flag again fell into anonymity. Determined to preserve the flag and find a permanent home, Josh Dorfman and AJ Rehberg co-founded the Great American Flag Preservation Group, a registered 501(c)3 organization, in April 2019. Much work lies ahead, but with the support of fellow patriots across the nation and world, Josh and AJ strive to accomplish the group’s mission. Currently, next steps include unfurling, cleaning, and restoring the flag to its original condition. With many national milestones in the near future, the Great American Flag Preservation Group aims to have the flag serve as backdrop alongside celebrations, memorials, and other major historical events before finding its permanent home.