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Avenue of Flags flying for Memorial Day Weekend

Brian Schermerhorn of Frazee, Ray Blauert of Post 15 American Legion and Terry Olson of Detroit Lakes raise some of the 500 plus American Flags flown in Oak Grove Cemetery Friday afternoon. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)1 / 2
Visitors to Oak Grove Cemetery in Detroit Lakes can take a drive through the cemetery to view more than 500 veterans' burial flags flown throughout Memorial Day Weekend. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)2 / 2

This weekend, Oak Grove Cemetery will be lined with flags, honoring local veterans who have served this country. The Avenue of Flags has been around since 1990, but the history of the cemetery dates back much further.

It began April 24, 1874. Judge Reuben Reynolds, Col. George Johnston and Rev. J.E. Wood met and decided to purchase 10 acres of land from Johnston, located in the "southeast corner of the northeast quarter of the northwest quarter of Section 27 of Detroit Town-ship," according A Pioneer History of Becker County.

Reynolds requested that the survey of grounds be arranged according to the land -- hilly and curvy. The blocks and lots, streets and alleys would be in circles and winding curves of vari-ous shapes and sizes, the driveways and walks would be on the lowest ground and the burial lots would occupy the higher ground, with a gentle slope of land toward the alleys and walkways.

The work was slow and tedious, keeping the lots to conform to the natural lay of the land. Dense brush had to be removed, slowing the process even more.

According to the historic book, the first memorial service in Detroit Lakes was May 30, 1874, on the cemetery grounds.

Burials began immediately after the surveying was finished, but since the land was not enclosed, many of the marker stakes were knocked down or rot-ted away over time. By 1880, few lots could be located anymore, and two years later a new survey was conducted.

The new survey laid the blocks, lots, streets and alleys "on the right angle plan."

Now, many years later, more and more people travel the streets and alleys to visit the graves of their loved ones.

The Detroit Lakes VFW and American Legion together started the Avenue of Flags in 1990.

It began when Herb Koenig saw something similar to the Avenue of Flags in Blue Earth and suggested the locals do something like that.

"We thought it would be rather small, so we started out with 40 flags," VFW Commander Dave Coalwell said, "and as of today, we have 737 veterans represented out there."

With not enough means for 737 flagpoles, some of the veterans share poles.

"If we were to put up all 737 poles, we'd be half way to Richwood Road," he said with a laugh.

Although the flags are only flown twice a year, flags need to be replaced now and then due to wear and tear or getting caught in a tree, etc. They have also had to abandon about 25 flagpole bases over the years due to tree growth.

A few years ago, the cemetery association built a building and the VFW and Legion are paying them back, $2,000 a year combined. The building is being used for storing the flags and the poles.

"The burial flags are made of cotton and they are not made to fly, they are made to go into a shadow box," Coalwell said. "Be-cause we fly them twice a year, we put in a cable system where they can hang straight down and dry and last considerably longer."

As the number of veterans has grown, there's been a larger need for trailer space. The flagpoles are stored in a trailer, which was hitting the hanging flags in the building and ripping them. So, an addition was added to the building for the trailers, keeping them separate from the area with the flags.

"Some donate and some don't," he said of the veterans' families. "We don't require them to donate to fly the flags. We feel we're charged with the responsibility of taking the best care of them we can."

There is also a wall with the veterans' name listed on it.

The Frazee wrestlers have always helped the VFW and Legion set up the flags, but this year, with Memorial weekend earlier than usual, the wrestlers were still in school on Fri-day.

"Us old people will have to try and do what they do in very short order," he said with a laugh on Thursday. "We might be out here half the night."

Once the flags are up, the VFW and Legion members take turns guarding the flags all night.

Coalwell said it's not just the Legion and VFW members helping with the project either.

Steve Early is in charge of the grounds at the cemetery.

"Steve's a good guy. He's very conscientious about the place. Very helpful for us."

There are non-veterans that have been "more than dedicated to the project," he said, naming Roger Engstrom as one of them.

"He will not miss. He is physically impaired, but that doesn't slow his patriot-ism down. He usually is in his truck pulling one of the trailers. And he's got the best chance of backing one up, being an old farmer. We sure as hell can't," he laughed.

BTD is one more on the list Coalwell says needs recognizing. The caps on the flagpole holes deteriorated after time. Coalwell approached BTD and asked if scraps could be used to make new caps.

"They made us 750 caps out of brand new material, and then they sent the whole works out and had them zinc coated so we didn't have to paint them," he said.

"It was an incredible thing for us and we are so grateful for their involvement in that."

Grave marker flags, well over 1,000, are placed on the graves as well.

The Avenue of Flags is on display through Memo-rial Day weekend.

The VFW and Legion encourage donations for the Avenue of Flags project.