May 14, 2014 - On Memorial Day 1981 Marilyn Featherston was visiting a cemetery in Kansas City, Kan. that displayed large wool flags presented to the families of veterans when they died.
"It was the most beautiful sight that I had ever seen," recalls Featherston. "My husband Marv and I contemplated the expense and how to implement a similar display of flags at the Ortonville Cemetery."
Two years later the Avenue of Flags began in Ortonville.
In 1983 a total of 16 flags were raised over the cemetery on Memorial Day. Each flag, organized in alphabetical order, includes the name of the veteran honored.
"The flags were purchased from U.S. Representative Dale Kildee's office in Washington D.C.," said Featherston. "In 1985 we added 33 flags. My idea blossomed and took off from there. A family member could purchase a flag flown over the Capitol and the cemetery association covered the cost of the pole and stake. We extended the program to either living or deceased veterans associated with the Ortonville area."
The flag program grew even after setbacks.
"In September 1991 a fire gutted the cemetery garage, burning the 265 flags inside. "I thought it was all over at that point, but the community rallied and raised $3,500 and the flags were replaced."
About that time Featherston said the cost was passed on to family members from $7 to $20 to help cover the expenses.
A few years following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks the flags were set up for a special tribute.
"We put up 50 flags in the shape of a cross—one for each state as a tribute to 9/11," said Featherston. "The service held at the chapel attracted hundreds of people to the Ortonville Cemetery. It was a very moving experience."
Each year the Avenue of Flags grows.
"This year we'll set up 597 flags on the day before Memorial Day," she said. "Over the years many people have worked to make this happen. We have needed many volunteers to help out due to the shortage of funds for the cemetery association. We've been supported by the local scouts who stand guard over the flags during the night before Memorial Day and by a very strong community."
However, as the program grew, more help is needed. Plans for a 12-by-16 feet wood framed building at the cemetery are in the works to house the flags. Students from the Oakland County Vocational School will begin construction this June.
"The plan is to store the flags in the upright position so they are not so packed down in a box," she said. "It's needed to prevent damage, but space is a premium. We're just 20 percent short on funds needed for the project. The cost of construction materials has gone up, so we're asking the community for a little help."
Local service groups have made significant contributions to the project."
"The reality is the flag program is amazing and beautiful," she said. "I never imagined it would become as large as it is today. I thank God for all who have helped to make it so."