Truckloads of volunteers showed up at Oak Grove Cemetery Friday morning, May 22, to help set up the annual Avenue of Flags display, a strong show of support for the Memorial Day weekend tradition after it was initially canceled because of COVID-19 safety concerns.
David Coalwell, the leading organizer behind the display, said there were more volunteers than he even knew what to do with. He was happy for the extra help, he said, although a lack of volunteers was never the reason behind the display’s cancellation.
Organizers canceled this year’s display in early May, Coalwell explained, because of the stay-at-home orders that were in effect at the time. They felt they couldn’t set up the display in a way that would follow the state guidelines, and they wanted to be able to ensure the safety of volunteers.
When Gov. Tim Walz relaxed the orders a couple of weeks later, the display was back on -- with a few safety-minded changes to the way the set up usually takes place.
“It was simply a safety thing,” Coalwell said. “It was the governor’s announcement that meant we could do it.”
In the interim, however, there was an outcry on social media about the display’s cancellation. Responses to a Tribune article about it that was posted to Facebook revealed just how important the display is to people in the community: some were angry that it wouldn’t be going on, others expressed understanding about the decision, and more than a dozen offered to volunteer themselves as well as try to round up other volunteers.
Coalwell, who doesn’t use Facebook, said he never saw any of those comments. While offers to help are always appreciated, he said that wasn’t the reason the display was un-canceled. He’s always had “more help than I can stand,” he said. “The Frazee wrestlers have been doing it (hoisting the big flags) for 20 years. They come out and do it pretty quick … It’s not just a bunch of old veterans out there, I can tell you that. I don’t think people really know how it works.”
Set up for the display began at 8:30 a.m. on Friday morning, and the roads around the cemetery were packed with cars and trucks full of folks ready to help. Since the wrestlers take care of the large flags that line the roads of the cemetery, most of the other volunteers were set to work placing small flags at individual graves.
Ernest Freeman, for example, walked the grounds and examined headstones, wearing a protective face mask. He placed a flag into the ground wherever he saw a military inscription on or near a grave marker. Freeman had volunteered for this in previous years, too, he said: he believes it’s a worthy and worthwhile effort.
Down a few rows from him were first-time volunteers Faith and Autumn (they declined to give their last names), tenth grade students from Frazee. They decided to help out this year, Autumn said, because they heard about the display being canceled and wanted to show their support. Other volunteers there on Friday said the same.
The Avenue of Flags has been a tradition in Detroit Lakes since 1990, honoring fallen soldiers over the Memorial Day weekend. The flags used are casket flags that families have donated for the display.
“They’re from a deceased veteran; they’re very special flags,” Coalwell said.
The flags will be on display all weekend before taken down on Tuesday, May 26.