Excerpt reprinted with permission from Rural Montana magazine.
The enormous American flag that waves in the near-constant winds outside Shelby, Montana, would cover about the same area as an average home in this small city.
At 1,500 square feet, it’s the largest such flag of any rural Montana town, sometimes visible up to 8 miles away.
And this renowned regional landmark and source of pride for Shelby’s 3,000 or so residents exists in no small part because of the involvement of Marias River Electric Cooperative.
“It’s amazing how you can come from north, south, east and west, and see it,” says Kris lngenthron, the co-op’s general manager. “It’s really the first thing you see.”
The flag site and an adjacent memorial area were conceived and built by a group of local veterans that included Larry Nelson, a former general manager of Marias River EC. Since the 30-by-50-foot flag was first raised on July 4, 2005, the co-op has not only donated the electricity for its round-the-clock lighting but also provided labor and equipment to help maintain the site.
“It’s a great project,” Ingenthron says. “Marias River Electric will always be a part of it.”
Duane Drogitis, a member of the vets group, is in charge of raising and lowering the flag each day. He also trims its edges when the region’s relentless winds leave it threadbare.
He’s thankful Marias River Electric is always available with a bucket truck for trimming and for other maintenance needs.
“No one in our group wants to climb a 20-foot ladder anymore,” he says with a laugh.
Inside the flagpole is a 105-foot cable that runs to the top, where a lanyard is used to attach the flag. Every few years, after being twirled by the wind-whipped flag, the cable needs to be replaced.
“It’s just like a kink in your garden hose,” says Bob Longcake, another member of the vets group. “We can’t get that twist out of the cable once it’s there.”
That’s where Ben Widhalm comes in.
Widhalm, a mechanic and warehouseman at Marias River Electric, will wait for a window of relatively calm days, then bring the co-op’s platform lift to the site to replace the cable. He also runs the bucket truck for the vets and has even rebuilt the housing around the winch that raises and lowers the flag.
“I just like being part of it,” says Widhalm, who is also chief of the Shelby Fire Department. “I love seeing the flag up there.”
The flag site receives no federal or state money. It’s maintained entirely by donations and the purchase of engraved bricks in the veterans memorial wall. Proceeds fund an endowment that is used to buy the flags, which run about $1,700 each and need to be replaced up to four times per year.
Longcake says the group, most of whom are in their 70s or older, is always on the lookout for younger veterans in the community willing to take over stewardship of the flag project.
“Longevity is hard to maintain,” he says. “Therein lies our problem.”
But he takes comfort knowing that the community and the local electric co-op will always be there.
“Marias River Electric’s involvement is going to ensure it continues.”